The music of Haydn dominates the Melbourne Festival this year, with the imaginative Haydn Open House and the series Quartets at Sunset at the Collins St Baptist Church. Now in its third and final year this homage to Haydn aimed to have fine Australian and international performers present all 68 of the composer’s string quartets – and by the end of the Festival they will have succeeded.
A performance by the London Haydn Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 9 was a highlight of this ambitious series (devised by Richard Tognetti). So it was disconcerting to have no program notes other than a page in the Festival booklet naming the three items to be played, with no details. This left the listener playing a distracting game of “guess the tempo” and a little frustrated not to have some information about the context of each work.
Perhaps this was more a problem for the reviewer and it was soon forgotten as the Quartet – violinists Catherine Manson and Michael Gurevich, violist James Boyd and cellist Jonathon Manson – took up their instruments. (These too were surely worth a mention, as the Quartet plays on period instruments, the classical bows and gut strings giving a particularly full sound to the music.) Elisabeth Murdoch Hall played its part, with Manson waxing lyrical about the acoustics – but the audience applause was undoubtedly for the musicians.
The three quartets chosen, rather than simply showing a chronological development, presented three aspects of Haydn’s compositional style. It was a revelation given that the composer is too often in the shadow of the other greats of the Classical period, Beethoven and Mozart.
First was No.17 Opus 17 No 2 (published in 1772), its charm and characteristic Haydn sound convincing me that the first movement was Allegretto (In fact, it was Moderato). The first violin led with a rather embellished theme, giving an early taste of her prominence in all three Quartets. This is not to say that Manson dominated the music; the other three players supported her well but had their own distinctive parts to play – the four achieving the “equal music” of the best chamber ensembles.
Back to No.17: expecting an Andante I heard instead a dance with elegant phrasing lending interest to its simple tune (later, I discovered the marking was Menuetto: Poco allegretto). When the Adagio followed it was slow and quite formal with a lovely reprise. The final movement was spirited and rhythmic, a showpiece for all four players and (at last I judged one correctly!) the perfect finish with a stirring Allegro di molto.
This was the point at which Manson praised the Hall for its “intimacy and warmth”, characteristics which the Quartet infused into the String Quartet No. 37 in C major, Op. 50, No. 2, perhaps the best-known work of the night. Beginning with a lilting theme, it had a number of Mozartian elements, including the beautiful restrained ending of the second movement and the minuet, whose humour was (literally) played up to by the violist. The finale was cadenza-like in its challenge, played very fast and impressively together. Again the first violin set the pace but eye contact and good humour ensured that the Quartet not only kept together but delivered a brilliant ending.
After interval came No.3, Op 54 No 3 (published in 1789), described as having a particularly warm sound. This suited the Quartet which again followed the brilliant lead of the first violin to begin, through a soulful slow movement and another sparkling minuet to a finale that was the perfect showpiece for their virtuosity and sheer joy in music-making. They left us with a new understanding, and even love for the music of Joseph Haydn.
Read more about the Melbourne Festival’s Haydn for Everyone programs.