The strength of early music in Australia is on show in the Australian Haydn Ensemble’s recent disc for ABC Classics featuring three concertos — well, two concertos and a concertante symphony — by the great eighteenth-century master. A relatively recent newcomer to the early music scene in this country, the Ensemble nonetheless brings together performers who have worked in contexts including Pinchgut Opera and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra. The Ensemble’s work so far has indeed seen it make a feature of the work of Haydn, but it has ranged or is soon to range into the work of C.P.E. Bach, Boccherini and Beethoven. The Ensemble joins Ironwood (with which it shares some personnel) in providing advocacy for the music of the first Viennese School and is a welcome addition to the range of endeavour of Australia’s early musicians.
Australian Haydn Ensemble
Daniel Yeadon is the soloist in Haydn’s first cello concerto, an early work of the composer’s and contemporary with the concertante symphony Le matin that also features on the disc. The ensemble’s conception of this concerto leans towards a chamber-like intimacy, with close attention paid to the fine details — one never gets the sense that any part of the orchestral accompaniment has been written off as passagework. This intensely observed playing also suits and marks Yeadon’s playing, which is never forced, always closely detailed, expansively lyrical in the second movement, but muscular where it needs to be in the first movement and skittish in the third movement. Everything finds its correct place — from the unity of string sound to the correct weighting of brass parts — and the performance is a real joy.
I have been able to compare the Ensemble’s performance of Haydn’s sixth symphony with a handful of other recordings in a variety of other interpretations — both ‘orthodox’ early music performances and more modern orchestras nodding in the direction of historical performance practice as well as larger and smaller configurations. There is a fine line to tread, it seems, between having your orchestra too large and running the risk by subordinating the concertante parts of making them sound like incidental details in what is otherwise a standard symphony or making a bolder case, using a smaller, chamber-sized orchestra, that the ‘symphony’ is a kind of group concerto in disguise: the latter approach is the one the Ensemble takes. I think this approach works very well in the second movement, which is mostly a violin concerto and more rarely a violin-and-cello-concerto, but less well in the more densely scored outer movements, where the ‘soloists’ are indeed more readily cast in the position of bit contributors to something that is more standardly orchestral in texture. The concertante playing, however, is excellent, with a fine sense of the dialogic nature of the musical discourse. The opening ‘sunrise’ of the first movement and the lovely organ-based continuo orchestration of the slow movement are especially fine.
Harpsichordist Erin Helyard
The highlight of this disc for me at least is the final work, the Harpsichord Concerto in D major Hob XVIII:11. Fine as the cello concerto and Le matin are, you know within the first notes of this concerto that you are dealing with Haydn in the full flower of his maturity, in a Vienna obsessed by the preciosities of the galant style in the first movement (especially in the veering from the major-key sparkling, often syncopated episodes to the often more wayward minor-key episodes) and the Hungarian style in the final movement. The Ensemble changes character here again, providing a big-boned accompaniment scaled to the kind of vision soloist Erin Helyard has for this work. Helyard’s instrument is a copy of a Goujon 1749 harpsichord that is absolutely fit for the purpose and, frankly, Helyard is at his best when he gives it a good thrashing. A no-holds barred player, from continuo to solo playing Helyard is also fearless when sailing dangerously close to mannerism, as he occasionally does in the first movement of the concerto. But who cares? This is super playing, and I for one can’t wait for the Ensemble to tackle some of the harpsichord concertos of C.P.E. Bach on disc.