Why have just one cream bun when you can have three? Haydn might not be the first name you think of when the need for full-fat sugary indulgence arises, but there is nothing cerebral or academic about this composer. Instead, he offers an infectious sense of joie de vivre and a readiness – even within the classical tradition – to yield to the occasional temptation and take risks.

Sir András Schiff © Nadia F Romanini
Sir András Schiff
© Nadia F Romanini

Sir András Schiff, recently named one of the Principal Artists of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, relies on what he calls the “collective intelligence” of these musicians to effectuate his own unique sense of style and spirited music-making. In the three works which made up this programme, all written towards or at the end of his long life, the rapport that Schiff has already established with this ensemble was palpable almost in every bar. And who says that period performances have to be starved of warmth, with acidulous-sounding wind and thin, rasping strings? Not here!

The first cream bun on offer was one of twelve symphonies which he wrote in G major, a key identified by the Austrian composer Ernst Pauer as representing humour, brightness and simple grace. The English moniker is actually superior to the German original which refers to the “thump of the timpani”, whereas English-speaking audiences were initially kept in suspense as to what the “surprise” might actually be. In any case, if we are to believe what posterity has handed down, the composer probably missed a trick by not extending the mood of somnolence at the start of the slow movement still further. It is difficult to conceive that those early audiences would have been lulled into a state of torpor quite so quickly, and Schiff’s initial tempo was on the brisk side. No matter – since the timpani has an equally important role in the finale, where Adrian Bending’s emphatic statements underlined the fizz created by Schiff’s challenging speeds. All this came after arresting little explosions of additional vitality from the strings in the development section of the first movement, as if shots of glucose were being released into the system. Blood-sugar levels were also pumped up in the minuet with gypsy-like inflections at the end of string phrases, creating a mood of foot-stomping rusticity.

Bun number two was a delicious little concoction in the form of a piano concerto: this D major work is thought to be one of the few for a solo instrument actually written by Haydn himself. Schiff’s keyboard of choice was a modern fortepiano based on an original by Anton Walter, the most famous instrument maker of his day. Its comparatively modest sound meant that the work emerged not as a vehicle for display but as a complementary voice to the orchestral textures. Just as he had done earlier in the symphony, Schiff took evident delight in the dancing rhythms of the finale’s Rondo all’Ungarese marking. Here the cascades of notes were like hundreds-and-thousands being cast over the icing on the cake. This kind of candy is dangerously addictive: the audience willed Schiff to repeat the finale as an encore.

And so on to the final bun. The description of the last of Haydn’s six great masses as the Harmoniemesse derives not so much from the idea of harmony as from the German term for a wind band, accorded a more prominent role than in previous sacred works. Though the Kyrie begins gravely and the first choral entry is quite startling, coming as it does in the middle of a dramatic discord – itself one of the many surprises in this piece – Haydn is being very much true to himself. Even when the clouds fill the sky you know it won’t be long before the sun breaks through. Schiff emphasised the joyous and celebratory energy in this mass, deploying more dramatic and expansive gestures than in the first half, and eliciting expressive, big-hearted playing from the orchestra as well as rounded and committed choral contributions from the sixteen voices who made up the Choir of the Age of Enlightenment. Their internal balance was one of the delights of this performance and at no stage did they sound under-powered. It was a nice idea too to have a solo quartet consisting of Rising Stars of the Enlightenment, the OAE’s programme for advancing young vocal careers. All four soloists were fresh-toned and ideally matched.

Schiff did full justice to the blazing moments of sugar-enhanced ecstasy, such as the start of the Et resurrexit section and in the Dona nobis pacem, introduced by splendidly dramatic trumpet fanfares. Only once did I want to question a tempo of his choice. The Benedictus is marked Allegro moderato and at Schiff’s less than judicious speed the benedictory quality was somewhat lost. Nonetheless, this developing artistic relationship is clearly one to watch.