United Kingdom Haydn: The Night Shift – members of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment: Matthew Truscott (first violin), Margaret Faultless (second violin), Tom Dunn (viola) Robin Michael (cello). Old Queen’s Head, Islington, London, 25.9.2012. (LDS)
Haydn – First Set (half): Excerpts from Haydn’s String Quartets: G major Op. 33 No. 5: Vivace Assai, C major Op. 54 No. 2: Adagio, F minor Op. 20 No. 5: Finale, D major Op. 20 No. 4: Allegretto alla zingarese, Presto scherzande finale; Second Set (half): Haydn String Quartet in F major Op 77 No. 2
It is well known that Haydn is a bit of a prankster, playing tricks and practical jokes with our ears and sending us off on wild, musical goose chases. His quirky sense of humour was palpable as I tripped through a noisy public bar and up the dark, wooden back stairs in the Old Queen’s Head, Islington, London to hear some of his string quartets, which are usually associated with concert halls. Could this cosy parlour, with its faded, gilded mirrors, huge marble fireplace and towering wooden window shutters, be the type of venue that Haydn had anticipated for his listeners?
As the room filled, mainly with young professionals, the atmosphere became more relaxed and so did the start time, as we all chilled out, wristbanded and quenching our thirst. Was I in the right place? Where were the mud and tents, the Sultans of Swing, Guitar George? The quartet appeared unnoticed, tuned up quietly and the drinkers suddenly became an audience as they were gently silenced by Matthew Truscott, first violin, who introduced the evening to the hushed gathering. He quoted Goethe’s definition of quartets as a “stimulating conversation between four people.’’ This was beginning to be Night Shift OAE at its best. Things were getting interesting: each member of the quartet explained their role in the excerpt to be played and the spirit of Haydn’s musical genius. We were drawn in. They opened with the G major Op 33 No 5 Vivace Assai. The quartet interpreted perfectly the warm, genial and humorous qualities of Haydn’s writing in this movement.
Next, we were introduced to one of Haydn’s darker, more serious movements. Cellist Robin Michael explained the harmonically imaginative score of C major Op 54 No 2: Adagio. Night Shift handled this sombre chorale with such intensity that you could hear a pin drop at the end. Continuing with the same emotional fervour and expressiveness, the quartet went on to play F minor Op 20 No 5: Finale – normally a painful and introverted fugue. It certainly did not come across as such on this occasion. Robin Michael bravely introduced the contrapuntal elements of a fugue, and the quartet demonstrated how they would play the subject and countersubject between the four instruments. He even challenged us to identify the inverted version of the subject. I have never seen an audience so engaged while listening to a fugue. This was so memorable an experience that the fugue was even requested as an encore at the end of the concert. Extraordinary!
To bring us to the end of the first set, the mood was lifted even higher; we were treated to the last two movements of D major Op 20 No 4. This Minuet is in the form of a frenetic gypsy air entitled ‘alla zingarese’ in which the upper and lower strings alternate, playing complex syncopations and confusing us of any sense of a downbeat. This is Haydn, the trickster. The cello is given a glorious solo in the Trio, which was movingly phrased by Robin Michael. Continuing in the gypsy-esque style, Matthew Truscott launched into flashy, virtuosic embellishments in the Presto Scherzando Finale. Here chromatic melodies and leaps ricocheted from one voice to another, clearly demonstrating Haydn’s desire to give equal attention to all four instruments. The texture and the tone colour of each instrument were brilliant, particularly Tom Dunn’s recurring motive on the viola, which he played with infectious enthusiasm.
After the interval, Night Shift performed a spirited rendition of the whole quartet Op 77 No 2 in F major. This was a platform for the quartet to show their true colours: a well-known difficult piece was performed in a robust and polished way and one of the last Haydn quartets made compelling listening. The less wild first movement was brought to life by bright and incisive playing with wide variations of tone and dynamics. Margaret Faultless’ witty and detailed approach emphasised how humour had not left Haydn even in his old age. And humorous it was. Affectionate eloquence was reserved for the melodic moments in the third movement Andante which was brought to the fore by the expressive charm and glowing warmth of the four performers, who played with sheer beauty of tone and phrasing. Hurtling towards the end in the last movement Vivace assai, the quartet sparkled and created a synergy that brought rapturous applause from the audience and sent our festival-goers home with a spring in their step.
Night Shift OAE maintained the authenticity of the music with no compromises, not least by playing on period instruments; yet they broke down barriers of rigid concert hall behaviour. Not only were we given permission to mingle and refill our glasses during the performance, but we could cough fortissimo if need be. This audience was so evidently captivated by the fizzy enthusiasm, the superb interpretations and musicianship of the quartet that they listened with a much greater attentiveness than I had expected. No one moved, no one coughed and no mobile went off. All credit to the intoxicating and magnificent performance delivered by this very talented crew.
Above all, Night Shift OAE successfully steered a delicate balance between the familiarity and jingoism of the public bar world and the sombre, mature chamber music you might hear in a Jane Austen mansion. Their musical ability and unreserved enthusiasm for classical music won the hearts of the Islington chattering classes and I am sure Night Shift gained a flock of converts.
Not many things can stop the Upper Street set in their tracks, but the Night Shift certainly did on Tuesday. Even a drinking game with a Haydn fugue- remarkable! Anyone will drink to that! What a gloriously informal and clever introduction to Haydn for the uninitiated this was. A refreshing new approach in an unfamiliar but intimate setting by an unashamedly enthusiastic, gifted group.
Did I see Haydn’s distinctive face give an approving smile in one of the gilded mirrors or was it a trick of the light after a memorable night?