Haydn: Applausus, Hob. XXIVa:6 (UK public premiere)
Ellia Laugharne (soprano)
Elspeth Marrow (mezzo-soprano)
Thomas Elwin (tenor)
John Savournin (bass-baritone)
David Shipley (bass)
It is not every day one attends a Haydn premiere, even if only a UK public premiere. Haydn’s Applausus, written 250 years ago, for the fiftieth anniversary of a Cistercian Abbot’s vows, seems never to have been performed again until 1958, for a BBC studio recording under Harry Newstone, the soprano one Joan Sutherland. (She must have relished the coloratura!) Despite a few performances elsewhere in the meantime, and three recordings, it does not seem to have been performed in concert in this country until now.
Was it worth the wait? Unquestionably, although I fear that contemporary audiences, longing for superficially ‘exciting’ substitute film music, will not necessarily react kindly or even comprehendingly to a celebration of monastic virtues on a suitably monastic time-frame. There is no plot of which to speak; the work might almost be characterised as an allegory without an allegory. There can certainly be no questioning the quality of the music in this cantata. (Would it fare any better if we called it an oratorio, the two terms being more or less interchangeable? Hummel, after all, recorded The Seasons as an ‘oratorio’ in his 1806 catalogue of the Esterházy collection.) Conductor Ian Page offers sage advice, moreover due food for thought, when he writes, ‘If an aria is beautiful, why should it bother us if it lasts for more than ten minutes? If the same line of text is repeated a couple of dozen times, how do these repetitions affect us as we consider and contemplate the text? How should we best prepare ourselves for the experience of listening to a complete performance of the work?’ It would be interesting to know how it would fare in an abbet such as that at Zwettl, in Lower Austria, for which it was written. How would the acoustic and the visual experience of the architecture shape our experience? In the meantime, though, this concert hall experience gave a fine account. So too did Classical Opera’s splendid documentation, the concert programme a model of its kind, with an excellent note by Page, as well as an important reproduction of a letter by Haydn concerning the work.
By way of an introduction to the opening recitativo accompagnato, we heard, as seems often to have been the case in the work’s relatively few performances, the first two movements of Haydn’s Symphony no.38 in C major. Hand on heart, my preference remains for modern instruments in such music, but it is always good thing from time to time to revisit one’s preferences and prejudices, and I found much to jolt me from ‘modern’ complacency in the sound, especially from the wind instruments. The Mozartists, Classical Opera’s ‘period’ band, certainly sounded preferable to my ears to the current, peculiar fashion for mixing and matching modern and period instruments. Even the echoes of the second movement, marked by a certain intonational fragility, were well shaped enough to render that fragility more touching than anything else. And there was something to the sound, here and elsewhere, that brought the music close to the world of the eighteenth-century – and not just Haydn’s – Missa solemnis figuraliter, trumpets, drums, and all. The opening of that first recitative, moreover, seemed to speak of Handel, even if this were similarity rather than influence as such. (The period of Handel’s true influence on Haydn, nurtured by Gottfried van Swieten’s Vienna concerts of alte Musik, lay a good few years in the future.)
By the time we reached the first quartet, ‘Virtus inter ardua quaerit habitare,’ there was, moreover, little doubt concerning the quality of the soloists either. The coordination and blend of their often highly melismatic writing was second to none. Ellie Laugharne’s silver-toned soprano and Elspeth Marrow’s richer mezzo proved well matched and contrasted; Thomas Elwin’s fresh, truly Mozartian – for that matter, Haydnesque – tenor proved fully equal to the extraordinary challenges Haydn afforded him, especially later on in two highly ornate arias of truly ‘heavenly length’. John Savournin’s bass-baritone and David Shipley’s bass likewise offered a pleasing degree of comtrast, the former truly coming in to his own in the rage aria, ‘Si obtrudat ultimam,’ the latter ably handling the fascinating tonal plan of the first aria of all, ‘Non chymaeras somnitatis’. Harpsichordist Steven Devine and violinist Steven Devine offered fine solo work too. Throughout, one could only marvel at the care lavished by Haydn on this more or less unknown music, never to be heard again in his lifetime. Page’s tempi were judicious; this is not music to be hurried, let alone harried, nor was it in practice.
The closing chorus, here taken as quintet, is an ‘Amen’ in all but name – and words. It is a delightful one at that, and proved a true culmination, a point of arrival. ‘I hope,’ Haydn wrote in the aforementioned letter, ‘that this Applausus will please the poet, the worthy musicians, and honourable revered Auditorio, all of whom I greet with profound respect.’ It certainly pleased this member, honourable and revered or otherwise, of the Auditorio, who hopes against hope that he will not have to wait too long until the next audition.