Australia Haydn Ensemble at Melbourne – Quartets at Sunset


Franz Joseph Haydn playing string quartets, before 1790, courtesy Staats Museum, Vienna

Recalling the beauty and form of antiquity, was an emphasis for all creators during the late eighteenth century in Europe. This was a time when reading and music were among the greatest of pleasures.

The rebirth of the antique with increasing intensity and creative force became one of the great cultural development pathways of its time.

Sensibility flourished and a distinct elevation of interior sentiment became valued, with an expression of feelings of the heart seen as important.

Holding one of the defining batons of his time Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn helped establish the string quartet and symphony orchestra forms.

The latter being established gradually became the mark of a civilized city.

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Founder and lead violin Skye McIntosh photographed by James Mills, Martyn Cook Antiques, courtesy Australian Haydn Ensemble

While capable of hymn-like solemnity, for Joseph Haydn music was mainly about shedding formalised court etiquette, so that it could become a personal and appealing experience for everyone.

Through hard work and sacrifice Haydn masterminded melodic invention injecting sparkle into his works, because he intended for us to relax and rejoice in music for entertainment.

Rather than grand public statements, Haydn crafted works that ran the full gamut of human emotions, including wit, humour, joy, and sorrow.

Eighteenth century chambers, where his style of music was first played, were full of people moving about and they were often very vocal indeed.

The experience was more like some contemporary music scenes of our own time, when people reacted honestly and spontaneously to how they felt when great music is played.

The Australian Haydn Ensemble (AHE) is a young versatile group founded in 2011. They have ‘developed a flourishing series at the Sydney Opera House in the Utzon Room and at the Australian National University where they were 2014 Ensemble in residence’.

The ensemble has a number of guises, adding musicians as required. Four of the players recently made their Melbourne Festival and Victorian debut in Quartets at Sunset.

Marshall Maguire, who among his impressive credential is Head of Artistic Planning for the Melbourne Recital Centre, chose the trio of works performed.

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Viola player James Eccles, photographed by James Mills, Martyn Cook Antiques, courtesy Australian Haydn Ensemble

He stepped up to remind us all that the concert was a part of the Haydn for Everyone series, conceived a few years ago by Australia’s much honoured violinist Richard Tognetti AO Director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Now in its third and final year, the aim was to present all 68 of Haydn’s string quartets – and by the end of the Festival this year they will have succeeded.

Set in the spiritual heart of Collins Street with the Baptist Church as a venue, four virtuoso performers Skye McIntosh and Matthew Greco on Violin, James Eccles on Viola and Anton Baba on Cello, in a classically inspired architectural setting, intuitively read each other’s intentions.

Using Baroque bows and gut strings, the AHE were on a quest to present their credentials to the Melbourne music scene with vibrant playing. They showcased individually and collectively their fine technique, blazing enthusiasm and admiration for the composer they admire.

In a one hour long straight through concert, the works performed included the String Quartet MH 313 by Michael Haydn (1737-1806) and the Australian premiere of a String quartet by Manuel Canales (1747-1786) composer to the King of Spain.

The finale was the String quartet No 18, Op 17 No 1 by the master himself, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed in 1771.

Michael Haydn’s String Quartet MH 313 started the recital.

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Matthew Greco Violin, photographed by James Mills, Martyn Cook Antiques, courtesy Australian Haydn Ensemble

This was a pleasant work of three movements. The first was lively, the second sprightly and the third offered an excellent opportunity for intelligent interpretation, as the individual instruments scored stylishly off each other with sensitivity.

The second work by Spanish composer Manuel Canales Opus 3 No 3 revealed the Spanish composer’s extensive knowledge of European chamber music and its style.

Its melodic and rhythmic elements combined to provide us with an insight into a unique chapter in Spanish music composition.

There was a fine balance of the different tonal qualities and the distinct voices that were the ideal of contemporary composers at the time.

Perfectly harmonizing, the players of the AHE mastered the dance like qualities that seemed to emerge effortlessly and spontaneously throughout the piece and, with great alacrity.

Very little is known about Canales, whose scores were re-discovered in 1912 by Julio Gómes a composer and the musicologist for the library at Toledo.

Interestingly they turned up stored alongside works by Joseph Haydn, remaining unpublished until 1986.

Anton Baba, Cello courtesy artist

Anton Baba, Cello courtesy artist

Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet No 18 Op 17 No 1 revealed the resourcefulness of the man whose lively imagination contributed to his becoming a consummate master of music.

When approaching the work of one of the most prolific and prominent composers of his time, the players of the AHE endeavoured to achieve a fine balance between the intellect and emotion that emerged as the composer’s fame spread throughout Europe and across the channel to England.

While in part ‘bold and passionate’, I would have to say that overall when played together this trio of works seemed far too alike in tone and spirit to completely satisfy.

What was missing for me was a little of Hadyn’s ‘fizz and fun’, which after a hard day at the office if this concert was for ‘everyone’, would have been a great tension buster.

I look forward to making a fuller appraisal of the AHE when I encounter them playing a full program at Melbourne again soon.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

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