Sublime sounds of the 1780s



Victoria Concert Hall


The year 1789 is especially significant to the London Haydn Quartet's concert, part of its residency at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

All three works performed, two string quartets by Joseph Haydn and the Clarinet Quintet by Mozart, were composed that year or thereabouts.

However the highly prolific composers were experiencing very different fortunes at the time.

Haydn's fame was rising after being released from indentured duties at the Esterhazy court, while Mozart was underemployed and in poor health.

Rather different aspects of musical genius were yielded and brought to life by this excellent ensemble.

The London Haydn Quartet performs on period instruments and plays from 18th-century editions of the scores, thus attempting to recreate the sounds and performing styles of the period.

Modern ears will probably never know what the composers experienced, but if it was anything close to what was heard this evening, it would have been totally exquisite.

Playing on gut strings, there was not going to be volume in excess, but rather a refined and pure sound that projected very well through the large hall.

Very little vibrato was used, but the string sound was neither thin nor desiccated. Gentle and intimate would be more apt descriptions.

In the opening of Haydn's Quartet In D Major (Op. 64 No. 5), first violinist Catherine Manson's line floated and soared above the accompaniment provided by second violinist Michael Gurevich, violist John Crockatt and cellist Jonathan Manson.

That this quartet was nicknamed "The Lark" was no surprise.

The ensuing movements displayed a sense of nobility in the formal Adagio, implicit humour in the Minuet and a finale of all-out virtuosity.

"A story, a song, a dance and a party", as described by an early commentator, summed its disparate moods and countenances, which were brilliantly realised.

A longer work was the Quartet In E Major (Op. 54 No. 3), with its more introspective and moderately paced opening movement.

The slow movement provided ornamental flourishes on Manson's violin, affirming her role as leader, while syncopations and dotted rhythms livened up the Minuet.

Humour came to the fore in its mercurial finale with its stop-and-start search for the closing cadence, a favourite compositional device of Haydn's.

The quartet was joined by clarinettist Eric Hoeprich in Mozart's late Clarinet Quintet In A Major (K. 581). Hoeprich also performed on an instrument specific for its time - the basset clarinet - which has a wider range than the conventional clarinet and is capable of reaching lower notes.

Its larger size, bent appearance and eccentrically placed bell made it a visual oddity. Its sound was heavenly, possessed with mellowness and clarity which blended beautifully with the strings.

Its agility was evident in the Minuet and closing Theme And Variations, but it was the autumnal Larghetto slow movement where long-breathed lines transcended the sublime.

The applause after the work was so long and appreciative that the entire movement was repeated. No encore has felt this well deserved.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'Sublime sounds of the 1780s'. Subscribe