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Haydn’s <em>Applausus</em>: The Mozartists/Classical Opera at Cadogan Hall product=yes
16 Mar 2018

Haydn's Applausus: The Mozartists at Cadogan Hall

Continuing their MOZART 250 series, The Mozartists/ Classical Opera began dipping into the operatic offerings of 1768 at Wigmore Hall in January, when they presented numbers from Mozart’s La finta semplice, Jommelli’s Fetonte, Hasse’s Pirano e Tisbe and Haydn’s Lo speziale.

In this concert at Cadogan Hall, the programme was devoted singularly to Haydn who in 1768 received a commission from a Cistercian monastery in the northern Austrian town of Zwettl, for an Applausus cantata to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of their Abbot, Raynor I. Kollmann.

Haydn would have known what was expected of him: as the name implies, an Applausus cantata was designed to laud and applaud a worthy individual, and commonly took the form of a series of recitatives and da capo arias, à la opera seria. The Latin text (presumably written by one of the Abbot’s Cistercian brothers, and in this case more of an extended poem than a libretto) of Haydn’s Applausus Jubilæum Virtutis Palatium is sung by four allegorical Virtues - Temperance, Prudence, Justice and Fortitude - who are guided and encouraged by the measured words of the wise Theologia as they extol the pietistic life within the establishment and take turns to praise their honoree. The vocal soloists are accompanied by an orchestra of strings, oboe, bassoon, two horns, trumpet, and timpani, with harpsichord obbligato.

Occupied by his duties at Esterházy, Haydn was unable to attend either rehearsals or the performance, which took place on 15th May, of the commissioned cantata and so sent a memorandum enumerating his wishes about its production. Some instructions were of a practical nature: should two violin parts be required (an indication of Haydn’s expectations about the likely size of the instrumental forces) the copyist must ensure that the page-turns were arranged differently in each part to avoid half of the fiddle section falling silent at the same time. Elsewhere the composer offered musical mandates: the allegros should be played ‘a bit more quickly than usual’, fortes and pianos should be ‘observed exactly’, and violinists should avoid their frequent, and in his view lamented, practice of articulating tied notes.

This fascinating and valuable historical document - reproduced in the evening’s progamme booklet - has received rather more attention than Haydn’s score itself. For, the acclamatory sentiments of the extended arias - some lasting almost twenty minutes - and the absence of dramatic or narrative impetus, might make Applausus seem like heavy weather for all but the most enthusiastic devotee of opera seria or cantatas.

In an introductory note in the programme, Ian Page poses some sensible questions and provides thoughtful answers. Does it matter that an aria is long and repetitive, if the music is beautiful? If we hear the same line of text many times, does it affect the way we respond to its meaning? Page suggests that as ‘the work has virtually no plot’ the listener should ‘banish any expectations of story or narrative’ and allow him/herself to be transported by the ‘meditative nature of the music’: to become captivated - as Page and his singers had been during rehearsal - by the ‘slow-burn grip’ of the ensembles and arias which ‘pulled us into an enchanting and uplifting reverie’.

Given that there are almost two hours of music, that the text is in abstruse Latin which might perplex even the most able classicist, and that modern audiences are unlikely to share the Cistercian brethen’s taste for moralising laudation, Page issues quite a challenge to the average listener’s powers of concentration! Reverie can quite easily slip into day-dream.

However, the elegant and gracious vocal and instrumental performances that we enjoyed at Cadogan Hall offered plentiful prompts if attentions were prone to wander or wane. Page had obviously taken a great deal of care over the preparation of this performance, not just in terms of attentiveness to Haydn’s specific instructions and the observance of an idiomatic performance style and expressive aesthetic, but also with regard to the musical details of the score itself, many of which were clearly cherished. I felt that, somewhat surprisingly, this especial care was often most persuasively evident in the accompanied recitatives in which instrumental details engaged beguilingly and bewitchingly with the vocal lines - the latter combining textual nuance with declamatory effect, to hint at a specifically dramatic textual energy sometimes absent elsewhere. Accompanied by perfectly tuned violin scurrying, Fortitudo assured Justitia, ‘The sneers of your enemies are held in low esteem here’; Prudentia’s rich-toned celebrations of the delights and wisdom of the Palace were given addition weight by the well-shaped arguments of Luise Buchberger’s cello. Page’s direction of these recitatives was excellent: authoritative but admitting personal expression from his superb instrumentalists.

The helpful acoustic of Cadogan Hall also enhanced the clarity of the orchestral textures and the expressive impact of the inner voices within that texture. The Allegro di molto of the two-movement overture alertly balanced bright violins with nasal brass and wind, and the dynamic contrasts and nimble finger-work of this opening contrasted with the delicate beauty of the ensuing Andante molto. No wonder the Virtues were full of wonder ‘at the beauty of their Palace, an admiration expressed in the opening Quartet, ‘Virtus inter ardua’, sung by Temperantia (Ellie Laugharne), Prudentia (Elspeth Marrow), Justitia (Thomas Elwin) and Fortitudo (John Savournin) in which the soloists’ voices blended warmly, and Page made much of the harmonic arguments.

Haydn must have been assured that there were five talented singers in Zwettl and its environs, as he requires his soloists to deliver both affecting melodic grace and coloratura sparkle. The tenor role of Justinia was performed by a singer well-known to Haydn and who was entrusted to direct the rehearsals: for his efforts, he was rewarded with two exquisite arias, whose potential ‘long-windedness’ is alleviated by a mini-concerto for harpsichord (at the close of ‘O pii Patres Patriae!’) and a charming violin obbligato (in ‘O beatus incolatus!’), here performed with technical assurance and convincing stylish grace by Steven Devine and leader Daniel Edgar respectively. The former aria was strengthened by lovely woodwind playing and Page’s keen seen of the rhythmic discourse between steady tread and syncopation, but some momentum was lost. Tenor Thomas Elwin did not always make the extended melodic gestures cohere, but his tone was appealing and ‘O beatus incolatus’ was characterised by greater fluency of line and persuasive expressive intensity.

John Savournin’s energised rendering of Fortitudo’s shorter ‘Si obtrudat ultimam’ (If destiny should swallow us up) made a case for the less-might-have-been-more argument: the contrast between the buoyant top and dark bottom of his bass-baritone, coupled with the furious momentum garnered by leaping octaves and striking accents in the accompaniment, and the cello’s continuous racing against the oboe’s interjections, made for real excitement and interest.

At the first performance the soprano parts were taken by ‘two boys’ - Haydn’s letter of instruction shows that he trusted his experienced tenor to offer these young singers appropriate guidance - but here soprano Ellie Laugharne and mezzo-soprano Elspeth Marrow stepped into the shoes of Temperance and Prudence, initially joining forces in a delightful duet which, despite lying quite low in the voice for both singers, was well-projected and further enhanced by gentle trumpet colouring. Of all the soloists, Laugharne appeared most engaged in the unfolding sentiments of the work, and in her aria, ‘Rerum, quas perpendimus’, she made light of the virtuosic demands, engaging intelligently with the horns and cello to suggest a real musical conversation. Laugharne’s vocal commitment did not flag for one moment in this twenty-minute stamina-challenge; nor did her judgement - the chromaticism of the B section was thoughtfully exploited and the trills judiciously brief. No wonder, despite the silent respect shown elsewhere, the audience felt compelled to applaud.

David Shipley took a while to warm up in Theologia’s first admonition to the over-adulatory Virtues but after an initial slightly inhibited tone and lack of melodic elegance, the bass found greater ease of projection and vocal presence.

We can’t know what Haydn though would come of this ‘occasional’ work. But, some of the music was plundered subsequently, with sacred texts replacing the original secular words to render it suitable for church services. Thereafter, Applausus languished in the margins of music history, until in 1958 Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon and conductor Harry Newstone reintroduced the cantata to audiences via a BBC series titled The Unknown Haydn, Newstone conducting the Haydn Orchestra with a solo quartet comprising Joan Sutherland, Marjorie Thomas, Richard Lewis and John Cameron. The Boston Symphony Orchestra, under Erich Leinsdorf, gave a full performance at Tanglewood in 1964; and, there have been three commercial recordings to date, including a 1991 modern-instrument recording led by Patrick Fournillier on Opus 111.

In giving the first live UK-performance, The Mozartists/Classical Opera offered both musical pleasure and food for thought. Though the absence of narrative momentum occasionally led to a sense that Haydn’s invention was cruising on autopilot, and though in the extended arias the relationship between the sentiments of the text and their musical embodiment threatened at times to disappear, this was a performance which skilfully and expressively communicated the solemnity, sensitivity and sublimity of Haydn’s varied score.

Claire Seymour

Haydn: Applausus

The Mozartists: Ian Page (conductor), solo violin (Daniel Edgar), solo harpsichord (Steven Devine).

Temperantia - Ellie Laugharne, Prudentia - Elspeth Marrow, Justitia - Thomas Elwin, Fortitudo - John Savournin, Theologia - David Shipley.

Cadogan Hall, London; Thursday 15th March 2018.

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