Left – Skye McIntosh
What a delight these young musicians are. The Australian Haydn Ensemble is one of very few period instrument string quartets currently established in Australia. All of its members play regularly with Pinchgut Opera, and with the Brandenburg Orchestra. Skye McIntosh leads with decisive flair, Natasha Kraemer is impeccably solid on cello, and James Eccles makes every phrase on his viola speak with a searching seriousness. But I couldn’t take my eyes off Simone Slattery on second violin. She was the embodiment of C P E Bach’s dictum that the musician should reflect in their expression every nuance of the music they play. Laughing with Haydn’s jokes, almost in pain with Mozart’s chromatic straining, she was constantly in visual contact with whichever player in the ensemble her part answered, or played together with, and just a delight to watch.
The concert began with a quartet by Boccherini, an Italian who, like Vittoria and Scarlatti before him, moved permanently to Spain. Although the music was fairly generic, it was interesting to see the occasional splash of Scarlatti break through the urbane, eighteenth century surface of the music. The Australian Haydn Ensemble then played Mozart’s D minor quartet, one of the six he dedicated to Haydn, who by then was a close personal friend, and with whom he played string quartets. I have never heard this quartet live on period instruments before, and was deeply struck by how much colour and nuance comes over with historically informed playing that is lost in modern instrument performances, however wonderfully they may be played. The sound, and the style of playing, is altogether more transparent, and also more flexible, than performances of Mozart seen through the veil of nineteenth century performance practice, achieving a greater expressive immediacy. The D minor quartet is one of Mozart’s most introspective, pessimistic works, and this performance made the troubled, often syncopated first movement, the serene yet resigned slow movement, and the sheer terror of the final variation of the finale all vividly three-dimensional.
And then Skye’s E-string broke. This happens often when playing on gut strings. In period instrument orchestras, with more than one instrument per part, the player concerned changes their string and the performance goes on uninterrupted. But when it happens to a member of a string quartet, you simply have to stop, in this case in the middle of the finale of the Mozart. So, since we were almost at the interval, the quartet said, let’s have the interval now, and we’ll play the movement again before the Haydn quartet which was the rest of the program.
There was something very natural about all this. Of course no-one likes to be interrupted in mid-movement, especially in such a great performance. But the audience felt welcomed into the process of playing on early instruments by this, and accepted it with good grace. When the ensemble returned after the interval, there was a freshness, an immediacy of communication to their playing. It was as if the fourth wall had been dissolved.
The finest performance was of Haydn’s “Sunrise” quartet, op 76 no. 4. I had never realised before how much the “Sunrise” must have influenced Beethoven. The first movement is the model for the first movement of Beethoven’s massive late quartet in the same key, Bb. Both alternate between slow, mysterious phrases and short, jagged phrases of fast semiquavers – both are studies in disconnectedness, very unusually for the Classical period. These contrasts were all brought out sharply by the The Australia Haydn Ensemble. The slow movement, deeply reflective, the minuet, crazily funny, and the finale which quotes from Mozart’s last quartet – all very engagingly played.
And then, half-way through the finale, Skye's E-string broke again! By now the audience was having such a ball with the performance that when she came back onstage after replacing the string, there were cheers. The incident made us all realise the way any performance is on a knife-edge – an extreme occasion, as Edward Cone says. And we all participated in it.
The ensemble is on tour, and plays next in Lismore on Thursday. How lucky the Northern Rivers is to have an opportunity to hear such playing, live.
Australian Haydn Ensemble
Regional NSW Tour
Venue: A & I Hall, Bangalow NSW
Dates: 3 March 2019
Tour dates: 24 February 2019 – 10 March 2019
MOZART | String Quartet No. 15 in D minor K.421
HAYDN | String Quartet Op. 76 No. 4 (Sunrise)
BOCCHERINI | String Quartet Op. 8