THE Australian Haydn Ensemble are a chamber orchestra specialising in music of the late 18th century, the “classical” period.
The size of the group is flexible, for this concert a string quartet with an added cello. Three of the four works were for this quintet configuration. The biography in the program also notes that they perform on “historical” instruments, without further defining that, but one would imagine that would at least run to using strings appropriate to the period.
The program featured one work by Mozart, a quartet arrangement of a piece originally written for mechanical organ, “Fantasy in F minor” K.594 as well as a pleasant quintet, String Quartet No. 23 in G major by an obscure Italian composter, Giuseppe Cambini who spent much of his career in Paris writing string quintets for an arms manufacturer.
In addition there were two works by Luigi Boccherini, an Italian cellist and composer who spent much of his career in Spain. The first was String Quintet Op.25 No.6 in A minor and second of these was the String Quintet Op.30 “Night Music of the Streets of Madrid” which was the work that the concert was planned around.
The Night Music work was charming. Described as a “programmatic” work it recreated the soundscape of a Madrid evening in 1780 with the sounds of church bells, military drums, dancing beggars, liturgical chant, street singing and the cries of the night watch. Certainly the highlight of the concert, annoyingly only around 10 minutes long.
The idea of this ensemble is entirely admirable: music of the classical period played in a way that would (hopefully) sound correct to those who listened to the music originally. The execution, for this concert at least, was not so fine. The pitch was often wobbly on one instrument or other and there did not seem to be the ensemble cohesiveness that one expects from a good string quartet. Admittedly this is a sub-set of a larger group and not a dedicated string quartet, but there is an expectation that professional musicians can play in tune. At the same time, this did not bother the rest of the audience as much who responded enthusiastically throughout.
While the Great Hall has quite reasonable acoustics, though emphasising the cellos at the expense of the higher pitched instruments, the sightlines are non-existent. From two-thirds the way back in the hall the performers were invisible, other than the tips of their bows on the up-stroke. Surely it is time for a decent 250 seat performance space that works for acoustic music in this city. Raked seating so that the audience can see the stage, acoustically designed so the audience can hear. If there is any long term idea that this city could be a cultural hub, such a venue is a necessity to complement both Llewellyn Hall and the Wesley Music Centre. Probably wouldn’t cost more than half a kilometre of tram track.