What better way to approach the winter solstice than a program of baroque music about night? Such a program is what the Australian Haydn Ensemble has been touring round NSW, and which I heard at Angel Place on Monday night.
For this program Skye McIntosh’s Haydn Ensemble left the period of their specialism, the second half of the 18th century, and delved into the late baroque with music by Vivaldi, Telemann, Hasse, and, briefly, Heinrich Biber.
Titled for the cantata by Telemann that formed the centrepiece of the second half of the concert, the program included other night pieces, including Vivaldi’s amazing flute concerto, La Notte (Night). This is a work of amazing originality, beside which even The Four Seasons pales. Its six movements alternate between spectral indistinctness and phantoms of anxiety in a way which reminds us that night is by no means always a friend. To hear Melissa Farrow perform this was to listen to a masterclass in extreme subtlety of expression, with a dynamic shading down to as soft as possible, yet always clearly audible, accompanied as it often was by just two violins and viola. The violins, Skye McIntosh and Matthew Greco, play as one; and Karina Schmitz made her viola into an instrument of enchantment.
Farrow, whose total control of her baroque flute is familiar to me from many Pinchgut performances, also played a concerto by Hasse. This is in the strange key of B minor, called “gray” (we think of twilight) by Beethoven, and sounds eerily uneasy in the unspecified unequal temperament used by the ensemble for this program. Here again her subtlety of phrasing was mesmerising, as was the virtuosity of her coloratura in the fast movements.
The other guest artist was the baritone David Greco. His introductions to the arias he sang were perfectly modulated to Sydney audiences – unpretentious, urbane, and succinct. He sang four arias by Vivaldi in the first half of the concert, and then the excerpt from Telemann’s cantata Die stille Nacht and the strange couple of phrases in Biber’s Nightwatchman’s song in the second. I very much preferred him in the German music. His full, rich sound and perfect diction (so good that I could follow it without the text in front of me, and how often can one say that?) blended well with the strings, producing a sound in which Telemann’s remarkable counterpoint could be clearly distinguished.
Although Greco is fully capable of executing the ridiculous coloratura demanded by Vivaldi, his voice doesn’t have that transparent clarity that suits Italian music, and consequently, despite his sensitivity to balance, and again his care in diction, the sheer opulent opacity of his sound tended to cover the instruments. This was a shame, particularly with respect to the flute obbligato. And I have to say, hearing him sing the fantastic aria Gelido in ogni vena from Vivaldi’s Farnace made me aware how careful Vivaldi can be in matters of blend. This aria was written for a castrato, and sung an octave higher than in Greco’s performance the voice part entangles itself lissomly with the string writing in a way that is almost impossible to reproduce when the aria is sung by a baritone.
The Australian Haydn Ensemble introduced each half of the program with a concerto for strings and continuo, an unremarkable one by Vivaldi, and a very remarkable one by Telemann. Telemann, as the program note reminded me, was preferred by the good burghers of Leipzig to Bach for the post at St Thomas’, but he refused, so they had to settle for Bach, second-best … and every time I hear Telemann I am more and more convinced that he has been unjustly neglected.
Despite the way Telemann in particular always surprises us, however the comfortable assuredness of the late Baroque idiom, with its predictable sequences, played by these fastidiously sensitive players, generated a warm sense of familiarity and well-being among the audience. After the concert they seemed, in the words of the mid 18th century writer von Grimm, to be congratulating each other on the pleasure they had received.
Australian Haydn Ensemble presents
Die stille Nacht
with David Greco & Melissa Farrow
Director Skye McIntosh
Venue: City Recital Hall, Sydney NSW
Dates: 6 June – 24 June 2023 (Touring – see website for individual dates/venues)