AUSTRALIAN HAYDN ENSEMBLE – MOZART – VIENNESE STAR
Australian Haydn Ensemble String Quartet
Australian Digital Concert Hall
Monday March 14, 2022
Streaming once again from Chatswood’s Concourse Theatre, this Australian Digital Concert Hall recital was given by members of the worthy Sydney ensemble: artistic director Skye McIntosh, AHE regular Matthew Greco in violin 2 position, viola Karina Schmitz who may be just passing through on her way back to America, and cellist Daniel Yeadon without whom no period music performance in this country can lay claim to credibility. On paper, the quartet makes an impressive group; in the flesh, I’m afraid that these players have a fair way to travel before convincing us that they speak with one voice. Currently, the AHESQ fails to satisfy on a number of important levels.
We were presented with three works: Haydn Op. 33 No. 5 in G Major, Boccherini Op. 32 No. 5 in G minor, and the great Mozart K. 465 in C Major. Fine – an excellent launch to this year’s AHE season, if a tad chaste in personnel. But then, the live audience was not strong in numbers, as far as I could tell from the broadcast – unless a large crowd was packed into the back stalls. And I was hard pressed to find anyone in the crowd younger than (let’s be kind) 60. Not that there are any proscriptions currently in operation for events like this recital; venue organizers can ask those in attendance to wear masks, but I didn’t see any being worn. And, while it appears to be a pleasant enough space, what’s the Chatswood attraction? Previous online events show that CBD venues in Sydney have trouble attracting audiences, let alone the young; why promenade your wares in an ultra-conservative demographic that might as well block independently-thinking ne’er-do-wells from travelling further up the line at North Sydney?
Sadly, of the three works performed, I found the group’s Haydn to be the most unsatisfying. During the initial Vivace assai, first violin notes kept disappearing as early as bar 11. But McIntosh wasn’t alone: the ambient texture sounded scratchy and scrappy. Still, the first violin’s dominance is inbuilt and attracts your attention continuously – not always to a performance’s betterment, as the flimsy top notes across bars 21 and 22 demonstrated, and later a clumsiness in attack at bars 134-5. Up to this night, the players had performed in Canberra, Berry and up the road from there in Burrawang, so their roughness of ensemble surprised and disappointed.
Even in the relative safety zone of this quartet’s Largo, the question of weight distribution arose as problematic, like the accompaniment provided by second violin and viola in tandem for much of the piece’s length. As well, the uniformity of attack proved a moveable feast – either scatter-gun or over-aggressive (bar 44) – while the firm concluding measures lacked subtlety of dynamic. In the opening to Haydn’s scherzo, we were left up in the air rhythmically because of the inchoate chromatic scale across bars 4 and 5. Luckily, the trio made a more positive impression – but then, it’s four-square by comparison.
Refreshing to hear Greco and Schmitz being exposed in bar 33 of the set-of-variations finale, and Schmitz and Yeadon partnering for the penultimate excursion before Haydn moved to Presto and thereby brought about a much-needed infusion of verve and punch across that 26-bar stretch. However, this concluding glimpse of energy was insufficient to rescue a reading that seemed to be tinkering at the edges without giving the composer’s work its robust due.
Apart from devotees who have graduated beyond the Minuet from the E Major String Quintet and that entertaining mini-tone poem, La Ritirata di Madrid, most of us don’t know Boccherini’s 100 string quartets. Which is a pity, as this program’s central work demonstrated. Like the contemporary Haydn work just heard, this score favours the first violin, although Greco came in for a few partnership moments. Certain moments stood out, like McIntosh’s deft triplets peppered through the opening Allegro comodo‘s development. During the Andantino, Boccherini generated a well-tilled field of rhythmic titillations through the contrast of triplets with straight 3/4 crotchet passages. Happy to report that the ensemble’s unanimity of attack was pretty fair here, apart from a notable early strike from someone at the start of the movement’s fourth-last bar.
The composer gave his interpreters a good deal of interweaving and individual highlighting during the Minuetto con moto, the players here dealing out several clever touches, especially in the Trio‘s second part. Indeed, this movement generated some passages of individuality where the participants invested a certain layer of personality in their work, the which persisted into the concluding Allegro giusto where you gained some insight into how brisk and clear this music could be. McIntosh’s back-to-Bach Capriccio ad libitum cadenza sent a minor shock-wave through these ear-drums, probably because of the performer’s relish in the triple-stop chords that interrupted Boccherini’s busy-work demi-semiquavers.
Here was an intriguing inclusion in this recital book-ended by unquestionable and familiar masterworks. It gave plenty of indications – if they were needed – of the Italian writer’s capacity for originality and delight in experiment; nothing exceptional or disturbing like the opening passage of what was coming after this night’s interval, but venturing into the unexpected and not weighing down his lower-voiced players with supplementary pap.
Despite some drawbacks, the final piece proved the night’s most satisfying experience, in part because of the group’s employment of vibrato and the consequent production of a less strident sound colour, even in the chromatic meanderings of Mozart’s opening Adagio. Not everything went swimmingly, Yeadon sounding stressed for no apparent reason at bars 101 to 102. But the writing quality had moved onto a more finished plane than that which obtained in the program’s other content so far; even the polyphonic interplay was more satisfyingly couched and striking, as at the eloquent entry from Schmitz at bar 45. As well, the musicians allowed a fluency to their delineation of metre and pulse, giving space for moments of individual difficulty which is one of the vital requirements in chamber playing.
It’s the composer’s genius, of course, that carries off his opening Allegro, evident in the subtle changes that tittivate the recapitulation. But the performance was not able to maintain its sometimes worthy standard, displaced by odd distractions like an uneven first violin-viola duet across bars 225 and 226 and an absence of joyful elation in the effusiveness that begins in bar 235: that brilliant final gesture that carries us to the subdued final six bars.
Such imbalance in weighting also bedevilled the Andante cantabile, in particular the dynamic shifts that begin at bar 31 where the tailoring of voices proved to be something of a catch-as-catch-can affair. Across some pages, it struck me that the central pair – second violin and viola – had moved into a dynamically congruent space that sat at odds with the top and bottom lines. But the balance hadn’t improved by the time the ensemble reached that simple set of detached repeated chords in bar 81, and imperfections like that meant that these pages as a unit failed to capture this mind and heart.
Mozart’s Menuetto had its moments under these hands, despite occasional disruptions like the squeaky last F crotchet in bar 42, and several questionably pitched leaps in the Trio‘s second part. What you missed in the minuet itself was a sense of continuity; as it came across, you heard amiable scraps, if carried out with welcome fervour. I liked McIntosh’s manipulation of the metre in the opening strophes of the Allegro molto, slightly bending its shape up to the end of the first subject’s treatment at bar 34. In fact, this movement flew past with pleasing polish to the point that I was sorry we heard no exposition repeat – the only practicable one omitted throughout the night. This finale yielded a number of real pleasures, like the splendid duet for McIntosh and Yeadon beginning at bar 308 and an informed elegance at bar 391, and later at bar 404: points where other quartets batter the notes with Beethovenian passion. Certainly, this movement gave the program a convincing conclusion, if not one that wiped out the memory of a tentative Haydn interpretation and an absence of character in that unexpectedly original Boccherini.