Aston Magna Festival Celebrating Joseph Haydn and J. S. Bach

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Soprano Dominique Labelle
Soprano Dominique Labell

Dominique Labelle, soprano
Stephen Hammer, baroque oboe
Daniel Stepner and Nancy Wilson, baroque violins
David Miller, baroque viola
Loretta O’Sullivan, baroque cello
Anne Trout, baroque bass
Catherine Liddell, theorbo
Haydn: String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, No. 4
Haydn: Arianna a Naxos, Cantata for soprano and strings
J.S. Bach: “Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten,” Wedding Cantata, BWV 202
Heitor Villa Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5

Aston Magna, one of the oldest and most distinguished early and baroque music festivals in North America, opened with a magnificent concert featuring the great Dominique Labelle. It was also a significant celebration of the Haydn bicentenary, with one of the great Opus 20 quartets, his important secular cantata, Arianna a Naxos, and some wise words from Artistic Director Daniel Stepner on how to listen to Haydn.

The Haydn celebrations seem somewhat sporadic over here in America, but most of the local festivals have at least a few works scheduled on their programs, most of which will be discussed in the Review. Except in Austria, there is less than this immensely great composer deserves, but it is perhaps understandable in the light of the ongoing rediscovery of his large oeuvre, which began back in the 1960’s, as the Haydn-Ausgabe began to appear. His pre-London symphonies, keyboard sonatas, trios, and operas began to enter the repertory and were recorded. Dorati’s set of the complete symphonies, the Tatrai Quartet’s venerable recordings of the complete string quartets, a great range of period instrument performances have all made the full range of his creativity better known over the course of more than forty years. It seems there is little new to pull out of the hat, but back then Haydn was very much a part of things. This was when the Beatles were still fresh, and I used to think that they and Haydn had something in common, with their seemingly inexhaustible ability to create new music that was markedly different from the last ones. Haydn’s constant self-renewa is amazing. Another limiting factor has been the evolution of musical taste. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the Second Vienna School was still pre-eminent, and it stimulated an interest in the basics of musical composition, which was especially congenial to Haydn’s genius in harmony, counterpoint, and form. Typically, Anton Webern and Hermann Scherchen conducted Haydn symphonies with fanatical attention to details of scoring, sonority, and Schenkerian structure. Fortunately, we are now emerging from the post-modern lite phase which followed it, and serious composers like Elliott Carter are emerging from the closet, but the change in taste has not yet benefitted Haydn.

The Opus 20 string quartets are among his most sophisticated works. Spare, even severe in places, rich in counterpoint and subtle harmonic ideas, they represent a challenge to some contemporary listeners—which doesn’t mean that their slow movements do not abound with beautiful melodies or that they lack rococo charm. In writing them Haydn was at a particularly innovative and focused point in his development, and they emerge as particularly pure examples of his invention. Before he and his colleagues began to play the quartet, Daniel Stepner observed that Haydn left very few notes and sketches. He spent his mornings improvising for three hours. Then he had lunch and a nap, and when he awakened, he applied himself to composing. Mr. Stepner invited the audience to follow this improvisational quality, and, as they listen, to try to imagine what different courses the music might have taken, if he had made different decisions, as he surely did while improvising. The better you know Haydn the more fruitful this is. Some time ago, I used to listen to recordings or concerts of Haydn’s music every day, and, in reflecting about the music I had heard, I could imagine it going in variant directions.

Over about a week I heard Opus 20 quartets played not only by the distinguished Aston Magna group, but also the Juilliard Quartet at Tanglewood, and the wonderful Brentano Quartet at Tannery Pond—all very differently. The Aston Magna quartet, playing on period instruments, the first of them, set a very high standard. As individuals and as a group they had a high technical level and a well-developed idea of what Haydn was trying to accomplish. The first movement was marred only by some intonation problems which were solved by a bit of tuning after the first movement and never returned. Although all were superb, I was especially struck by cellist Loretta O’Sullivan’s clear, effortless articulation of Haydn’s phrasing. The slow movement, a set of variations based on a grave, dignified theme, which began in the minor and continued with intermittent, wistful lapses into the major, took the musicians through a gamut of individual figurations and interrelationships among the four voices. The music was at its most courtly in the minuet,  in spite of a gypsy character which remained fairly subtle, over jocular syncopations. The cheerful, even boisterous finale, demanded a variety of muscular, even gritty attacks, which the musicians provided with zest.

Arianna a Naxos is a substantial solo cantata in which a monologizing Ariadne stands by the shore, waiting for her beloved Theseus to arrive. Her emotions pass through a variety of states, as she begins to show concern, and finally experiences the full pain of abandonment. Dominique Labelle approached each section as a dramatic block, immersing herself in the dominant mood of each and maintaining it as an encompassing arch. The first was a noble, loving hope. The second a less stable dialogue with nature, producing only an echo in reply. In the third, Ariadne gives up hope and expostulates with her absent lover, passing into despair and helplessness. In her final aria she expresses only the wish to die, reflecting bitterly on her faithless lover. Aston Magna regulars will remember vividly Mme. Labelle’s performance as Dido in Purcell’s opera. In the Haydn, the astonishing consistency of her voice through all its registers, some of them quite low in this cantata, was even more apparent. It is a gorgeous, buttery voice with no audible trace of chest tone. It brought out the monumentality of Haydn’s throughly classical, almost Gluckian approach to the scene. Last year we heard an equally compelling performance of the work of a very different sort by Vivica Genaux and Craig Rutenberg, in which Ms. Genaux penetrated each phrase for varying expression.

Bach’s splendid Wedding Cantata brought Mme. Labelle into more genial territory, ranging from a general pleasure in the occasion to the bride’s intimate joy. She received a brilliant accompaniment from the Aston Magna musicians. Stephen Hammer played his baroque oboe with a rich tone and surpassing eloquence. Often you hear a bassoon in this cantata, but not in this performance. It would be entirely in place, of course, but it was a special pleasure to hear Loretta O’Sullivan play the elaborate jumping motif by herself, with her marvelous lightness and expressive phrasing.

The final piece led Mme. Labelle into the steamy Brazilian moods of Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5. (Villa Lobos has his own anniversary this year, the 60th of his death.) It came as a surprise to hear her project the heady twentieth-century sensuality and raw emotion of Villa Lobos’ setting of Ruth Valdares Correa’s intense verse with such overpowering sexiness, although the both the Haydn and the Bach had their share of it in a more discreet eighteenth century flavor. Rearranged from its original scoring for eight cellos for the Aston Magna group as it was, including theorbo, the work was more than effective, even overwhelming. What a brilliant idea to include this in the program! I only hope that they issue a cd, either of the concert program or of further explorations of Villa Lobos’ great music, which would be an excellent project in itself.

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