PSMF: Sara Macliver and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

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Published: 9th January, 2019

Australian Haydn Ensemble

St John’s Church, King Street, Flinders was the charming venue set for the concert from the Australian Haydn Ensemble, a Sydney-based group which specialises in orchestral and chamber music of the Classical era on original instruments. For this performance, we heard a string quartet and a flautist in an all-Mozart program.

The beautiful Flute Quartet in D major, K. 285 was first, with Melissa Farrow playing flute, Skye McIntosh, the ensemble’s artistic director playing violin, James Eccles viola, and New Zealander James Bush cello.

This delightful work, composed in 1777, is one of three quartets that Mozart composed for a ‘gentleman of means’ (and amateur flute player). In chamber concerto style, the flute sparkles with most of the melodic lines and opportunities to demonstrate virtuosity, while the strings provide the accompanying figures. Farrow’s flute playing (on a sweet-sounding boxwood copy of a 1780 instrument) was indeed artful, and at times virtuosic but unlike the effect with a modern flute, not dominant in the ensemble. And the strings shaped the ‘accompanying’ passages with classical style and restraint.

Mozart’s String Quartet in G major No 14, K.387, sometimes called the ‘Spring’ quartet is one of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn. For this, violinist Simone Slattery joined the other three string players. To hear it performed in the intimate atmosphere of this small church packed with 100 people, this work was entrancing.

The clarity of the playing enabled the structure of the work to be quite transparent. The effective interplay between the voices, the wonderful passagework in the cello, contrasting with the violin melodies, the shaping of every phrase to the point that the final note almost disappeared. With repeats played, the construction of the work could easily be followed, and the music itself appreciated in a particularly ‘classical’ way. Clearly there is some feeling, some emotion, but it is restrained, and the delight is often in the symmetry, and the surprise when it strays from the expected. The second movement, a minuet and trio, teased with its accents displacing the minuet rhythm for a few bars. The slightly less taut classical bow, together with the gut strings allowed the players to dig in a little further and highlight these sorts of phrase shapes in a way that you do not hear with modern instruments. The vigorous final movement’s fugal style passages were realised with clarity, and the syncopated and sometimes paired voices acted with satisfying precision.

It’s probably only at a festival that you find yourself at midday in a little church with birds singing outside listening to Mozart with spellbound capacity audience, and not so much as a rustling program or a stifled cough. A wonderful experience.

 

An Evening with Sara Macliver and the Australian Haydn Ensemble

A large marquee beside St John’s Church in Flinders was the picturesque situation for an evening concert. This enabled a much larger audience to enjoy the Australian Haydn Ensemble, this time with Aria Award-winning Sara Macliver, West Australia born and one of Australia’s favourite pure-voice sopranos, well-known for her expert baroque performance.

The rectangular marquee was only partly enclosed, the stage set inside centrally on the long wall. Patrons could sit ringing the stage on the picnic rugs, or low chairs inside the marquee, with several more rows still under or nearly under cover. A further couple of rows was accommodated on a walkway adjoining the hall. I was situated there, with a view directly into the marquee, but also seeing the blue sky, with just a couple of wispy white clouds, and the adjacent towering cypress and pine trees. Some fairly basic lighting enhances the natural light, which with the sun low in the sky projecting deep into the performance area and onto individual musicians at times. The sound is all completely natural – no amplification.

It is a lovely picnic atmosphere, and sitting with a glass of local wine (sold by the glass or bottle), I was keen to enjoy the evening. And many aspects of it were charming. Opening with Boccherini’s Flute Quintet in G minor, Op 19, No 2, the classical flute didn’t project beyond the performance area as well as the accompanying string quartet, although the general effect of the outdoor atmosphere was most agreeable.

Sara Macliver made the long walk to the stage to sing two movements from Boccherini’s Stabat Mater. For this, the string quartet was joined by their double bass player, Jacqueline Dosser. Vivaldi’s In furore iustissimae irae, a three-aria cantata, followed. The Boccherini was an unusual choice, though the music was charming. It was introduced by the Ensemble’s Musical Director, but without a microphone, her voice could not be heard from where I sat.  The Vivaldi was stylishly performed, with Macliver delivering a virtuosic Alleluia to end the first half. The ensemble lacked the tightness and impeccable tuning that we had heard earlier in the day. Gut strings are very sensitive to temperature and humidity, and the evening was becoming quite cool, with breezes affecting different instruments from different directions. And my guess is that on the marquee stage they were not able to hear each other nearly as well.

After interval, it was 8.15pm and sunset was approaching. Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major (‘London’), in Salomon’s arrangement for the small ensemble, was accompanied by much birdsong. Lorikeets flew across the skies, chirping loudly, then we had the more raucous galahs, some charming magpies and then cawing crows. Sitting beyond the marquee, Haydn was just part of the total soundscape, so it was easier to forgive the intonation difficulties.

Sara Macliver introduced the four Mozart arias herself, and her vocal projection allowed us to hear every word of her speaking. Two of Zerlina’s arias from Don Giovanni were sung, then Pamina’s Ach, ich fühl’s from Die Zauberflöte, and finally  Laetari iocari, from Apollo and Hyacinth, written when Mozart was only eleven. These were accompanied in versions for the string quintet, flute and harpsichord, played by Tom Foster, and arranged by Lim. The coloratura of this final bravura aria allowed Macliver to thrill the audience with her celebratory vocal fireworks. The enthusiastic reception led to the much-loved Handel aria Lascia ch’io pianga as an encore, completely contrasting in character.

This outdoor event is very popular, but perhaps it requires instruments with better projection and more stability of tuning, if it is to remain completely acoustic.

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Reviewer Margaret Arnold attended select Peninsula Summer Music Festival performances for Classic Melbourne.  The full festival schedule can be found here.