The two works programmed for the last subscription concert by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra were subtly connected in several ways. It was an evening devoted to the music of Viennese Classical composers. First came the Symphony no. 95 in C minor by Joseph Haydn, followed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s Mass in C major; both keys bearing some significance around the Age of the Enlightenment. After all, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, premiered a year after the Mass, begins its manic “Fate-knocking” in C minor, only to turn to glorious C major in the last movement.

Masaaki Suzuki
© Marco Borggreve

Haydn’s no. 95 – the only one of his twelve “London” symphonies in a minor key – follows a similar pattern, turning from minor to its parallel major key, but in a very different way. As is characteristic of so many of Haydn’s compositions, the path of this symphony is full of unexpected turns, surprising tempo, character and rhythmic changes. The surprises start right at the beginning, as the powerful opening fanfare, full of promise of military music, is interrupted by silence and then, continues with the sweet, longing melody from the violins.

The inventive brilliance works best if contrasts are clear and if the surprises have a musical ‘shock’ effect. It takes some courage to fully explore these opportunities and the considerable experience of the Japanese guest conductor, Masaaki Suzuki, supposes him to be the ideal exponent of the Haydn style. While the performance was tight and well-conceived as a whole, some of its details fell short of the panache that Haydn’s late symphonies invariably promise.

It was perhaps due to the large body of string players that some of the soft dynamics were not as effective as they could have been. Haydn seldom instructs the use of mezzoforte, the middle dynamic range, but clearly distinguishes between two shades of loud (forte, fortissimo) and two of soft (piano, pianissimo) dynamics. The contrast between these was not always sharp enough, and some of the unexpected accented notes (sforzati) – so typical of Haydn’s music – sounded mild rather than spicy.

The Andante brought the first of several attractively shaped cello solos in the evening. We did not have to wait for long for the next one; the middle section of the Menuetto was made memorable by the elegantly virtuosic solo of Umberto Clerici.

One of the crowning achievements of Haydn’s long-term association with Prince Nikolaus Esterházy were six masses written in honour of the name day of the Prince’s wife. Beethoven’s Mass in C major was also commissioned for the same occasion by the Prince at a time, when Haydn was too ill to compose. Beethoven obliged but the Prince was not impressed, opining in a letter that the Mass was “insuportablement ridicule et détestable”. His harsh wording understandably hurt the composer who, in the published edition, proceeded to dedicate the work to another patron of his, Prince Kinsky.

In defence to Prince Esterházy, the Mass in C major rarely whips up the same turbulent emotions as the Appassionata Sonata, or offers heartwarmingly beautiful melodies as in the Pastoral Symphony (both written around the same time). It is not so much a passionate offering to God, but rather a people’s Mass, based on the so-called Ordinary of the Latin Mass. Suzuki is an expert choral conductor and his direction of this work proved as a compelling refutation of Prince Esterházy’s judgment.

The juxtaposition of a professional orchestra and an amateur choir is not without some inherent dangers. Yet, the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs contributed most impressively to the success of the night. With the excellent preparation of their music director, Brett Weymark, and under Suzuki’s inspiring and understanding leadership, their phrasing sounded just as creditable, as their wide range of dynamics, from the whisper-quiet dread of the Miserere to the polyphonic fugal entries of the Hosanna. Their singing would improve even further with more emphasis on the clarity of the diction, a particularly difficult task with such a large choir.

The four soloists, Sara Macliver, Anna Dowsley, Benjamin Bruns and Christian Immler formed an enjoyable near-perfect ensemble. Macliver’s simply phrased, seductively warm voice set the vocal standard in the Kyrie and the others followed suit. Their collaboration with each other, the choir, orchestra and their conductor was excellent and was shadowed only occasionally, for example, in the Gloria, by different understanding of what the optimum vibrato should be.

The orchestra followed Suzuki’s dependable gestures with professional care, providing a solid, if not revelatory framework to choir and soloists. Balances were generally well established, although the Benedictus’ cello obbligato became at times covered among the supporting voices. This work has not been heard in its entirety in Sydney for a long time, thus it was a welcome performance, all the way to the last six soft C major chords at the end.