A Great Rarity by Haydn Proves Delightful

17/03/2018

Haydn: Soloists, The Mozartists (solo violin: Daniel Edgar, solo harpsichord: Stephen Devine) / Ian Page (conductor). Cadogan Hall, London, 15.3.2018. (CC)

Haydn – Applausus Hob.XXIVa:6 (1768, sung in Latin: first UK performance?) Ellie Laugharne (soprano, Temperantia), Elspeth Marrow (mezzo-soprano, Prudentia), Thomas Elwin (tenor, Justitia), John Savournin (bass-baritone, Fortitudio) and David Shipley (bass, Theologia)

It is not every day we get a possible first UK performance of a piece by Papa Haydn. And yet here it was, a piece that certainly received what the BBC stated was its ‘first modern performance’ in a broadcast performance on May 24, 1958. That was in a series entitled ‘The Unknown Haydn’ curated and introduced by Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon: soloists included Joan Sutherland, Marjorie Lawrence, Richard Lewis and John Cameron; the BBC Chorus and ‘The Haydn Orchestra’ were conducted by Harry Newstone. Elsewhere, there was a performance at Tanglewood in 1964, by the Boston Symphony under Leinsdorf.

Ian Page’s pre-concert talk, here in 2018, which began unassumingly by Page wondering on stage to no applause, was as informative as they come, introducing us to this rather static but beautiful piece. There is no plot, essentially, for this piece commissioned in 1768 by the Cistercian monastery in Zwettl (Lower Austria). The standard version of why the commission was given is that the monks there wished to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their abbot, Rainer Kollman, but another version is that it was actually for the abbot’s seventieth birthday; whatever the reason, the work was to celebrate and glorify its recipient. After its first performance, the work’s performance history clouds over, to say the least, with a possible performance in 1773.

As Haydn was not present at the work’s premiere, he left a letter which is a goldmine of performance practice information, from staggering page turns within violin sections, to when accompaniments should enter after a singer has been singing solo, to the importance of observing dynamic markings. The letter was reproduced in the programme booklet.

Regarding the (dramatis) personae – note the use of parentheses –  the four cardinal Virtues are joined by Theologia. Page opted to have the two low male voices, Fortitudo and Theologia, on opposite sides of the stage, which worked effectively. The arias, two of which include substantial obbligato contributions, are unremittingly long. This is no bad thing. Page referred to the piece in the context of ‘mindfulness,’ although I wonder if he meant meditation generally (mindfulness implies a concentration purely on the moment while the sense was of a long, undramatic piece that can take the listener into ‘another’ space). Whatever the intent, the fact is that the piece sucks the listener in. The music has the luxury of a sense of expansion that terse symphonies and string quartets are rarely allowed.

The first two movements of Haydn’s Symphony No.38 in C formed the ‘overture’, the opening Allegro di molto featuring screaming (and not 100% secure) horns, the second movement with splendid antiphonal imitation from the violins in lovely long non-vibrato lines. The opening part of the piece proper centres on the admiration and wonder of the Virtues at their Palace, with Theology (Theologia) tempering their enthusiasm. The gentle mezzo of Prudentia, the excellent Elspeth Marrow, blended perfectly with the light soprano of Ellie Langharne’s Temperantia in the opening recitative. (The extended Duetto ‘Dictamina mea doceri qui gestit’ later on, with its short but remarkable cadenza for two voices, confirming this beyond any doubt.) Most impressive of all in this section was the outstanding tenor of Thomas Elwin’s Justitia, a voice with not a trace of a bleat. The ensuing quartet (‘Virtus inter ardua’) revealed how carefully Page had chosen his soloists, the voices intermingling perfectly in whatever combination was operative; the music of that quartet itself was perfectly paced by Page, imbued with a sense of inevitable flow. Immediately thereafter, Theologia, the fifth soloist enters, and again we had the impression that the lower-range male soloists themselves were perfectly complementary, bass-baritone John Savournin’s Fortitudo firm, bass David Shipley’s Theologia a touch heavier.

The tenor aria ‘O pii Patres Patriae!’ confirmed the excellence of Thomas Elwin. A shame that Steven Devine’s florid obbligato harpsichord contribution, which started out beautifully, lost some of its spontaneity as the aria continued. Elwin was beyond criticism, though, his voice positively honeyed. He was no less impressive towards the end of the piece in the super-long aria ‘O beatus incolatus!’, which unfolded beautifully, aided by the superb violin obbligato of Daniel Edgar. Here, the influence of Handel on Haydn’s score seemed at its height. John Savourin’s ‘Si obtrudat ultimam’ offered the most dramatic aria of the evening, an unusual moment of contrast (the text of the first line means ‘If Destiny should swallow us up in a final cataclysm’). The very lowest reaches of the bass range were perfectly focused.

Soprano Ellie Laugharne’s aria ‘Rerum, quas perpendimus’ revealed a singer of cleanliness – particularly as regards her slurs – and accuracy. The Mozartists’ sense of phrasing here was particularly delicious: Page consistently revels in the beauty of the long line.

The final ‘Chorus’ is actually performed by the soloists together and has an alternative title of ‘Quintetto’. Bright, lovely and including some very suave phrasing for the concluding two words (‘dulci benignitate’; sweet kindness), it was the perfect close.

Regarding the tempi, Page had told us earlier how they had experimented with swifter tempos to shave off a few moments from the extended length of the arias, only to find that it simply could not be justified. It was this sense of honesty and rightness that imbued the entire evening. Page also underlined the underlying flavour of each aria’s key centre perfectly: the brightness he found for Theologia’s aria ‘Non chymaeras somnitatis’ is far more suited to the music than the slightly muted version on one of the two recordings of the work, that on Capriccio conducted by Andreas Spering. (There is another version which may be more difficult to obtain on the Opus 111 label conducted by Patrick Fournillier, and apparently there was one on the Koch label also, which will doubtless prove still more elusive.)

There was an interval in the performance (after the tenor and obbligato harpsichord aria). Arguably, it was a mistake as, given the meditative aspect of the piece, surely we should remain in that state throughout, as the music does? Nevertheless, what an opportunity this was, and what a success it was. All credit to Ian Page and his colleagues as they continue their Mozart 250 journey.

Colin Clarke

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