Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Just pure Haydn: John Butt and OAE at Kings Place

30 September 2022

Kings Place (Photo: Nick White)

Haydn comes out of hiding in Central London.

Precision and clarity were the watchwords for Friday evening’s Voices Unwrapped programme at Kings Place, an all-Haydn presentation from the Choir and Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment under John Butt.

Haydn’s 44th symphony (‘Trauer’) – one of the composer’s Sturm und Drang works – was given an account in which all of its phrasing and mannered emotions were meticulously observed through precisely controlled dynamics and some well-considered orchestral texturing. The busyness of the two outer movements which, in less experienced hands, might have become blurred, was exactly articulated, with some dramatic phrase breaks to indicate the arrival of new musical ideas. The second movement’s Minuet was delivered with an elegance that bore witness to a consummate understanding of period dance, and contained some impressively controlled horn playing from Ursula Paludan Monberg in the high lyrical passages; the mellow gut-string sound in the Adagio was beautifully supported by the warm undercurrent of the winds, giving rise to a charming idyll in which the graceful poise of the dotted rhythms contrasted well with the agreeably relaxed legato surrounding it (the soft da capo at the movement’s end was fine indeed).

The programme advertised just two works: the symphony and the Nelson Mass; presumably feeling the need to pad it somewhat, the performers had inserted the ‘Ganz Erbarmen’ movement from Haydn’s adapted oratorio The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross. While this was given an excellent performance, the whole thing felt a little out of place. Bleeding chunks of larger pieces (particularly those with a scriptural and devotional narrative) always seem a little stranded when mixed with complete works, and meeting the piece’s requirement for two trombones (which appeared nowhere else in the programme) felt like a somewhat lavish gesture. There are plenty of short, self-contained choral works by Haydn, and one felt that one of these might have been more appropriate.

“…all of its phrasing and mannered emotions were meticulously observed…”

The attention to texture and dynamic given to the symphony continued in an excellent performance of ‘Nelson’ Mass (Missa in angustiis), and we were given formidable walls of sound from the chorus for the ‘Gloria’ and ‘Credo’ sections, that were contrasted with some impressive agility in the contrapuntal material and the quieter interjections in ‘Et incarnatus’. The final ‘Dona nobis’ was particularly energetic, and the drive and interest given to Haydn’s obsession (“oh, and another thing”) with the ‘et…’ statements at the end of the Credo were a delight. Again, the instrumental textures were carefully managed to provide the drama the piece needs. One forgets what a military work it is, but the omnipresent trumpets faultlessly played by David Blackadder and his team from the gallery, left one in no doubt of the threat of Napoleonic advances.

The soloists were, by and large, good. The star role here is the soprano, and Sofia Ticciati’s sweet yet powerful instrument provided strident triumph for her dramatic runs in the ‘Kyrie’ and a delectable softness of tone for ‘Et incarnatus’. The ‘middle part’ soloists, sadly, get mostly quartet work, but one wanted Haydn to have allowed more for Bethany Horak-Hallett’s gloriously rich mezzo and Hugo Hymas’ precisely articulated tenor to get their teeth into. Robert Davies has a lovely, complex resonance to his bass voice, but it seemed challenged at either end of the range: the top, on occasion, feeling a little strained, and the lower register (needed so much for the dark passages in ‘Qui tollis’) barely sounding.

One small point must be made about the pronunciation of the Latin by the singers. John Butt is a well-respected academic in the field of performance practice, and one feels that he must have taken an informed decision on this, but among the delights of historically informed performances are the interesting timbres and textures made by the instruments. To use a default ‘Italianate’ style for the Latin left the feeling that had the pronunciation been given a more Germanic approach (with all those fizzing consonants), some of the same sorts of possibilities might have been brought to the texture by the voices.

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