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Australian Haydn Ensemble at Carnegie Hall 16 October 2023
Photo credit: Oliver Miller

Concert Review: Australian Haydn Ensemble – Haydn, Mozart, J.C. Bach on Period Instruments

This reviewer, as longtime readers will know, loves a good period-instrument concert. To hear great composers’ music as they and their audiences heard it is revelatory and rewarding in several ways. Groups like the Australian Haydn Ensemble (AHE) take great pains to recreate the past as closely as they can.

Audiences hearing the AHE on its current U.S. tour will appreciate the effort. That was certainly the case last night at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, where the ensemble made its New York debut with music by Haydn (of course), Mozart, and Johann Christian Bach.

Musical Evolution

Instruments from the mid-to-late 1700s differed from their modern counterparts in a number of ways, many of them easy to see or hear. Yes, violins and cellos from times even earlier than that are still played and treasured by today’s classical music stars, and we marvel at how good an ancient Stradivarius or Guarneri sounds. On the other hand, the oboes in use when Haydn wrote the two early symphonies on the program, (Nos. 6, Le Matin, and No. 8, Le Soir), are made of visibly different materials and sound somewhat thinner.

The French horns lack valves, making them significantly harder to play. And the double bass (pictured below) – played, by the way, with great brio by the AHE’s Pippa Macmillan – has frets partway up the fingerboard, reflecting modern string instruments’ evolution from the viola da gamba.

The 18-member AHE performs standing, lending a friendly informality to the concerts. Artistic director violinist Skye McIntosh leads the ensemble from the concertmaster’s (nonexistent) chair. They led off with the Symphony No. 6 of Johann Christian Bach, one of J.S. Bach’s many sons, who made a successful career in England and was a major influence on the young Mozart.

The ensemble delivered the Allegro that opens this impressive symphony from the 1760s with high spirits and a full, well-balanced sound that benefited from the Weill Recital Hall’s excellent acoustics. With only 18 instruments (the same number Haydn worked with), the listener can easily make out individual voices. This gives the overall sound an intimate quality you don’t get from a massive orchestra.

That was notable in the dark second movement, which featured beautifully sustained tension, soulful interplay between the violins and violas, and resonant tremolos that were innovative for the time. The bracing finale galloped to an abrupt end with almost Haydn-like humor.

AHE at Carnegie Hall 16 October 2023
Photo credit: Oliver Miller

Haydn and Mozart

Early in his career Haydn wrote three symphonies that depicted the parts of a day. We heard the morning and evening installments.

It was easy to image a sunrise in the Adagio prologue of No. 6, Le Matin. Racing scales and prominent woodwinds then suggested birdsong. The second and fourth movements featured feelingly played violin and cello solos; in the finale McIntosh appeared to be having hoedown-style fun on lead violin. The third movement’s stately minuet featured the extremes of range: the flute, and powerful arco solo passages from that old-style double bass.

Haydn also featured individual instruments in the Symphony No. 6, Le Soir. Following dextrous ensemble playing in the Allegro molto, we heard solo violin and cello, lovely two-violin duet passages, and in the minuet the double bass cheerily preening all the way from the bottom to the top of its range. The finale came across full of brio and bright colors.

The AHE’s approach to Mozart was just as sound. The first movement of the Symphony No. 29 was ebullient and driven, and the rest flowed with alternating ease and zest. Amid (despite?) Mozart’s music’s greater complexity, this miniature orchestra achieved a sound that suggested a bigger group, displaying superb ensemble playing.

The Australian Haydn Ensemble’s U.S. Tour continues through this weekend. Here’s hoping these fine artists come back soon. To experience one their performances from afar, their December 15 concert back home in Oz will be livestreamed.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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