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Review: Academy of Ancient Music

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By the mid-1780s Haydn had become the most famous European composer. His celebrity extended to every cultured nation on the continent and reflected his genius as a writer of vocal works, string quartets and symphonies.

There had been several previous attempts to get him to come to England, eventually meeting with success through the agency of a London violinist and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon.

Haydn arrived on 1 January 1791, a significant date in this new departure for him, and he stayed until January 1792. A second visit took place from Spring 1794 until late Summer 1795 and was even more successful than the first.

From the outset Haydn set Georgian London alight, much as Lord Byron would do with his poetry only a few years later, and he continued to do so with his series of concerts and compositions, including his celebrated 12 London Symphonies regarded generally as perhaps the crowning achievements of his life’s work.

Academy of Ancient Music (55393009)
Academy of Ancient Music (55393009)

The latest in the Academy of Ancient Music’s ‘New Worlds’ cycle at West Road on Wednesday evening had been given the title ‘Exiles’, an appropriate one not only for the predicament of the heroines of three of the works performed, but also for Haydn himself, an exile from his own country when he was living in England. In fact Haydn remarked that he had been obliged to be ‘original’ given the distance he was from the musical swing of things working under the patronage of Prince Esterházy.

The Overture to his opera L’isola disabitata (1779) began the evening’s programme with the orchestra’s combination of powerful, tempestuous passages and a decorous minuet reflecting the stormy passion of Constanza in her imagined abandonment, as well as the innocence of her younger sister, Silvia, who has been raised in innocence and encouraged to be resentful of men. The ‘New Worlds’ opening performance inevitably led to reflection on Prospero’s ‘brave new world’ in Haydn’s take on the drama by this composer known to his contemporaries as the ‘Shakespeare of music’.

With the arrival onstage of eminent mezzo-soprano, Ann Hallenberg, the island location was re-located for her outstanding performance of the most highly regarded vocal work of Haydn’s in his lifetime, the secular cantata ‘Arianna a Naxos’. This story, the inspiration for several composers, was included by the AAM in their most recent concert of the series when they performed Monteverdi’s revolutionary version ‘Lamento d’Arianna’.

Haydn’s work, like the ‘Scena di Berenice’ to come, comprises two recitatives and two arias. Ann Hallenberg’s wonderful voice was the perfect one to reveal the series of Ariadne’s anguished and expressive emotions as they develop throughout the cantata , soaring astonishingly in passages such as ‘Ah vieni, o caro’ in the 1st Recitative, and ‘Teseo, Teseo’ in the 2nd and giving affecting melodic depth to the arias.

After the interval AAM foregrounded, with the orchestra, a quartet of its principal musicians, Bojan Ĉičić (violin), Joseph Crouch (cello), Leo Duarte (oboe) and Ursula Leveaux (bassoon). Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante in B flat is an infrequently performed composition from Haydn’s first visit to London and allowed AAM’s virtuosic quartet to provide a variety of colour and melodic charm, not to mention a degree of the playfulness and humour Haydn was so famous for, and which AAM carried off with their usual flair and nuance.

The final work of the evening, ‘Scena di Berenice’ (from Haydn’s 2nd visit), again presented an abandoned woman in a lonely place and is a powerful musical description of madness. It was written for solo soprano and orchestra, unlike the previous cantata (never orchestrated by Haydn) - AAM had employed a later orchestrated version. It may have been with ‘Berenice’ that Haydn now felt that he had equivalent musical forces to deliver the work appropriately.

Once again Ann Hallenberg tailored her delivery to the extraordinary demands of the piece, freezing us to the bone with ‘un gelido mi scuote’, powerfully energising ‘Fermati! Vivi! And soaring once again as she invoked the cruel gods (‘barbari Dei’).

Haydn is known widely of course for his string works and symphonies. But who better than the Academy of Ancient Music and their renowned soloist to perform and, perhaps for many of us in the audience, introduce us to such glorious unfamiliar music?


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