This programme of Haydn and Dussek from the Academy of Ancient Music proved to be a triumph of concert design and informality in the intimate setting of Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall. The evening's works together presented an unusually coherent structure, under the banner of the title Saint and Sinner. Haydn, the saintly father of the genre, gave us two of his London symphonies to flank a shrewd selection of songs and a piano concerto by Jan Ladislav Dussek, here castigated for his financial and domestic inadequacies and gastronomic excesses. The result was one of the most brilliantly conceived programmes I have witnessed, guided gently by Richard Egarr's easy rapport with the audience and the uncommonly superb programme notes.

The Academy of Ancient Music © Marco Borggreve
The Academy of Ancient Music
© Marco Borggreve

Dussek's contributions were the most interesting, perhaps unsurprisingly given his relative obscurity. His vocal compositions are even finer print than his (slightly) better known works for keyboard. Before the interval, Austrian mezzo Daniela Lehner sang the even numbers from his Six Canzonets of 1804 with utmost aesthetic beauty and grace. Accompanied only by Richard Egarr on his own fortepiano, driven specially from Amsterdam, the three songs on the challenges of love were delivered with meticulous attention to detail in the delicately ornamented solo and accompanying lines.

After the interval, Egarr himself was soloist for the same composer's Piano Concerto in G minor from 1801, one of at least 18 he wrote in the genre. The unconventional structure, or lack thereof, sees the soloist playing for an extraordinary proportion of the concerto and with little chance for respite, making this the most overtly romantic item on the bill. Interestingly, the keyboard was set in its conventional position parallel to the stage front, rather than facing into the orchestra to permit simultaneous playing and direction. Egarr self-deprecatingly quipped that Dussek has instigated this to better display his side profile, but it also had the benefit of opening up the soloist as link between orchestra and audience. The opening triple time Allegro, taken briskly enough to give it the agitated feeling of a Mozartian G minor, allowed him to show off some very elegantly shaped semiquavers runs, played at the wonderfully fragile pianissimo permitted by the fortepiano. Light horn and woodwind touch in the second movement, and a sparkling, vivacious finale (again at a breathlessly quick pace) took the concerto to its stern G minor close.

The evening began and ended with two of Haydn's London Symphonies, Nos 93 and 94. These warhorses never seem to get old, particularly when handled in the fresh, bright sounds of a period ensemble. The small forces, based on a string section of just 14, made the string sound brilliantly transparent, spurred on by the incisive brashness of natural horns and trumpets and dry brightness of manual timpani. They rose to the tuttis with admirable vigour, giving a gutsy boldness to the outer movements of No. 93. There was great humour too in the slow movements of both symphonies, in the famously flatulent bassoon contribution to No 93 and the deadpan but explosive surprises in No. 94. Both symphonies danced off the pages with zeal and great musicality, the proof of their abilities to listen and adapt coming in the meticulously clear ensemble (there never seemed to be much need for eye contact) leaving Egarr little to do as conductor.

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