The Australian Haydn Ensemble are an early music orchestra at the top of their game. Schooled in multiple historically informed performances with Pinchgut Opera, they work with guest director, Erin Helyard, with great enjoyment and flair, and a unanimous feeling for eighteenth century performance style. They gave three concerts for the Adelaide festival on Saturday, based around Haydn’s triptych of symphonies, Morning, Noon, and Evening. They performed these in three concerts, appropriately, at 10.00 am, 12.30 pm, and 5.00 pm.

These three symphonies were the very first he wrote on appointment to the court of Esterhazy in what is now Hungary, but was then part of the Austrian Empire, in 1761. I only heard the first of the three concerts, but the first of the symphonies, Le Matin (all the German and Austrian courts emulated France in the 18th century, and it was posh to speak French) bubbles with pleasure, the pleasure Haydn had in having such a great band of musicians to work with. Besides lots of solos for the concertmaster (and Artistic Director of the Australian Haydn Ensemble), Skye McIntosh, there were flute solos, oboe solos, cello solos, and even a duet for bassoon and violone. These little showpiece vignettes were played with zeal and purity of tone by Melissa Farrow (flute), Adam Masters (oboe), Simon Rickard (bassoon), Daniel Yeadon (cello) and Laura Vaughan (violone) – all so good that to single any of them out would be to convey a false sense that they were not each part of an organic, self-sustaining whole.

In 1761 Mozart was 5. Erin Helyard played his K1, a simple but perfect minuet. Quite something to hear a piece by a five-year-old. Then the ensemble launched into Haydn’s keyboard concerto no 4 in D major. The first movement was an example of why I don’t listen to quite as much Haydn as I should. Competent, dynamic, quite inventive, it rushed around and left me a bit cold. But the slow movement was another matter. The strings of the ensemble wallowed in the appoggiaturas, which are of course the most powerful expressive device in all mid-18th century music. Interestingly, when Erin played these same passages on the harpsichord (an original Kirkman!) they sounded like an almost skeletal memory of the music the strings had just played. Those appoggiaaturas demand for their very essence that the second note be much softer than the first, and this pattern was so perfectly and unanimously performed by the strings that when the harpsichord imitated them, with its inability to make one note softer than another, it sounded like what the music looks like on the score rather than what had just been played. I was aware of the craving for the invention of the piano, a craving that the third quarter of the 18th century must have felt.

In 1761 CPE Bach was, at 47, a well-established composer and kapellmeister at the court of Dresden. He is at the top of my list as the most neglected great composer today (closely followed by Ockeghem) and it is always a pleasure to hear performances of his work. His Symphony in E minor, actually written in the year of Mozart’s birth, 1756, began the program. It is a fine example of the new introverted, passionate style of music then coming into vogue, called Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), represented by Haydn in symphonies written in the early 1770s, and in literature by Goethe’s Sorrows of the young Werther. As CPE Bach says in his treatise (also published in 1756) The True art of playing Keyboard instruments, he “barely quiets one passion before arousing another”. Thrown from anguish to delight in a few bars, this symphony is an emotional rollercoaster enthusiastically embraced by all players.

The Australian Haydn Ensemble, like Pinchgut Opera, is a national treasure. I hope for our sake that the brilliant director, Erin Helyard, loves working with them so much he resists blandishments for posts with the top early music ensembles in Europe. Because that is the level of excellence he has acheived.

Event details

2022 Adelaide Festival
Haydn’s Solar Poetics
Australia Haydn Ensemble

Guest Director Erin Helyard

Venue: Adelaide Town Hall | 128 King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 5 March 2022
Tickets: $99 – $47

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