Who better to direct an all-Haydn programme than Adam Fischer? Co-founder of the Haydn Festival, he also founded the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, who recorded the composer’s entire symphonic output in Haydn Hall of the Esterházy Palace, Eisenstadt, Haydn’s former place of employment. Here the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Fischer offered a programme of three mature Haydn works, all written within a four-year period of Haydn’s seventh decade.

SCO © Chris Christodoulou
SCO
© Chris Christodoulou

As its Latin title suggests, Haydn’s 1798 Missa in Angustiis (“Mass in a Time of Peril”, nicknamed the “Nelson Mass”) was composed in difficult times. Napoleon’s revolutionary French troops threatened Vienna and the cost of war made itself felt even at Esterházy, where Prince Nikolaus II had disbanded the Feldharmonie (wind octet). The resulting scoring of that year’s annual saint’s day mass, was for strings, trumpets, timpani and organ. However, woodwind parts were later added by Johann Fuchs (1766–1839) and it was this version which the SCO played.

This dramatic work gets off the ground very quickly and the SCO, along with 49-strong SCO Chorus (superbly directed by Gregory Batsleer), lost no time in rising to the occasion. This was a truly gripping performance topped by four excellent vocal soloists. One of the features which often earns this mass the adjective “symphonic” is that the soloists, rather than supplying discrete arias, join and exit the proceedings very much in the manner of orchestral instruments. This results in more rapid changes of colour than might otherwise be the case. Soprano Elizabeth Watts was excellent in her virtuosic part, which required vocal fireworks from the opening Kyrie. Her contrasting “Et In Carnatus Est” was simply lovely. Bass Neal Davies was impressive in the Miserere nobis, in which the SCO Chorus also supplied delicate, finely tuned unison. Fischer seemed in his element. Although it was clear that neither chorus nor soloists required prompting, he seemed touchingly unable to resist mouthing the words out of sheer enjoyment and involvement. The energy of this performance was an effective antidote to our own Angustiis. If the performance which Nelson heard during his visit to Esterházy in 1800 was anything like this, it’s impossible to imagine that he would feel anything other than thrilled and greatly honoured.

After the interval Elizabeth Watts rejoined the SCO as soloist in Haydn’s 1795 Scena di Berenice. Now in operatic as opposed to concert mode, she gave an electrifying performance in the title role. Having fallen for her stepson, Demetrius, who abandons her through suicide to avoid dishonouring the family, Berenice pleas to the gods to bring her life to an end. This traumatised monologue effectively portrays her unstable and conflicted state of mind. Haydn’s avoidance of a stable tonal centre enhances Pietro Metastasio’s volatile libretto. However, there is one relatively settled moment, “Non partir, bell’idol mio”, where Berenice beseeches her lover not to part for the underworld’s shores without her. This was sung with great tenderness. The dramatic and technical demands of Berenice’s more explosive moments showed Watts for the operatic natural she is. The audience reaction to this item was equally explosive. Although very busy, the hall was not completely full – Scottish Opera’s appearance a few metres down the road had perhaps made its mark on the finite diaries of a small city. Nevertheless, I have never experienced such a vocal reaction to a performance in the Queen’s Hall. Watts looked absolutely delighted with this response and very appreciative of the SCO’s excellent accompaniment.

Haydn’s 1794 Symphony no. 101 in D major, “The Clock” closed the programme. Despite its title, the work opens in the key of D minor, nicely matching the opening Mass. This Adagio, which precedes the Presto, is really the symphony’s only slow movement. The second movement is given over to horological impersonations, here featuring the SCO bassoons in tick-tock major thirds. This fine writing, and playing, served as a reminder of the elegant engineering of clocks of the period, something easily overlooked in our digital age. This symphony’s impersonations are not limited to the mechanical. In the Trio section of the Menuet, the woodwind players are required to emulate the sound of a rustic dance band. This was so convincing that, for a few seconds, my ears were thrown by the sudden un-orchestral sound. The Finale (Vivace) was absolutely joyous. It seemed a sign of Haydn’s maturity that he could effortlessly switched to fugal mode to step up a gear, and that the resultant energetic writing couldn’t be further from academe. Throughout the symphony I was fascinated at the variety of Fischer’s conducting gestures, ranging from tiny finger movements, through excitable, whole-body cues, to huge, wave-like phrasing indications. He seemed delighted with the SCO’s response and that of the hugely cheered audience.

*****