Although there was a BBC studio recording in 1958 featuring Joan Sutherland and Richard Lewis, Classical Opera’s presentation of Haydn’s cantata Applausus of 1768 represented its first live performance in the United Kingdom. The piece is unusual for a variety of reasons, not least the manner in which it came about. The composer was commissioned to write it by the Cistercian monastery in the Lower Austrian town of Zwettl to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their Abbot, Rainer Kollmann, taking his vows. At the time, Haydn was under the long-term patronage of the Esterházy family, with his work at the court keeping him so busy that outside commissions were rare. This one was accepted, however, and he received the substantial sum of 100 florins for his efforts.
Haydn was, however, too busy to attend rehearsals or the performance, a fact that proved to be a blessing in disguise, at least for subsequent generations. It prompted the composer to write a letter outlining how the work should be performed, which has proved invaluable and not just from the perspective of understanding the music in this particular piece. With one section reading ‘if you have to copy two sets of violin parts, the copyist should see that they do not turn their pages at the same time because this takes a great deal of strength away from an orchestra with only a few musicians’ we gain quite an insight into his eye for detail.
The cantata features five arias, a duet, quartet and concluding chorus, and the characters of Temperance (a soprano) Prudence (mezzo-soprano), Justice (tenor), Fortitude and Theology (both basses). There is no plot as the four characters representing the Christian Virtues praise their palace, made wondrous in recognition of their wise and worthy behaviour, while Theology ‘tempers their admiration’ by stressing the need to be steadfast. In the context, the palace clearly represents the monastery, and so the piece was specifically designed to appeal to the monks by elevating their own dwelling and lives to the realms of the ethereal, while also reminding them of their responsibilities. In doing the latter, however, it does not lecture or condemn the monks but simply asserts the values of humility to which they would have adhered. No-one knows who wrote the libretto but, given all this, it seems likely that it was actually a member of the order.
The piece on the one hand sounded like pure Haydn, and on the other like nothing we have ever heard from the composer. The performance began with the first two movements of his Symphony No. 38 because Haydn, having had no time to compose an overture, had suggested that the cantata should start with two movements of any of his symphonies in C major (the 38th was written just a year earlier). After this, however, the entire work became so much slower that Haydn’s very music felt different in nature simply because the pace felt more commensurate with that of a Handel oratorio.
The work was clearly designed to be meditative in tone, and upon hearing it one could picture how the monks might similarly have been raised to a spiritual state. Two of the arias lasted for over fifteen minutes each, and yet it was quite clear that they needed to be this long in order to draw the listener in to the required degree. In fact, possibly the most beautiful aria was one of these, Justice’s ‘O pii Patres Patriae!’, which featured a sublime concertante solo for the harpsichord. At the other end of the spectrum was Fortitude’s ‘Si obtrudat’, which being in Haydn’s ‘Sturm und Drang’ style, and comparable to the opening movement of his Symphony No. 26 in D minor, ‘Lamentatione’, felt quite atypical for the piece as a whole.
The orchestra, conducted by Ian Page, was on excellent form, while from among the strong line-up of soloists, which included Ellie Laugharne as Temperance, Elspeth Marrow as Prudence and David Shipley as Theology, Thomas Elwin and John Savournin stood out as Justice and Fortitude respectively for delivering the aforementioned arias so well. This may have been the first time that Applausus had ever been performed in the United Kingdom, but we can certainly hope it will not be the last.
This concert was part of Classical Opera’s Mozart 250 series, which sees the ensemble perform Mozart’s La finta semplice at Birmingham Town Hall on 2 June and the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6 and 8 June. For full details of all of its recordings and forthcoming events visit the Classical Opera website.