IN: Reviews

Sarasa on Haydn’s Genius


With a rarely heard nimbleness, immediacy, and subtlety, members of Sarasa Chamber Music Ensemble performed Haydn and Mozart on gut strings, fortepiano and keyed wooden flute at the Friends Meeting House in Cambridge on Friday. “The Genius of Haydn” did indeed reveal Haydn’s special type of genius, one that came from a combination of modesty, humanity, maturity, self-deprecation, humor and embrace of life. His is not a genius that dazzles, but rather one that sheds a healing and enduring light.

A few preliminary words about the merit of reductions. Each piece on the program is associated in some way with a reduction or arrangement of a larger work for smaller forces, intended to help reach a wider audience—entirely in keeping with Sarasa’s goal of making music more widely accessible. Haydn’s London symphonies were reduced by the musician/composer/impresario J. P. Salomon, whose visit to the newly-liberated Haydn in Vienna is well known: “I am Salomon from London and have come to fetch you.” It was the start of a beautiful friendship, the two working together productively for years, including permission given by Haydn to Salomon to produce the arrangements of the London symphonies for small chamber groupings. Salomon first produced transcriptions for a trio of pianoforte with violin and cello, but these were judged to be inadequate at conveying the symphonic textures of the works. Salomon answered with quintetto arrangements, a string quartet plus flute, with an optional pianoforte accompaniment. These were immediately successful, and two of these reductions— for the “Surprise” and “Clock” symphonies—were on the program for this evening. The Haydn piano sonata, in turn, was dedicated to his friend and student Maria von Genzinger (“Marianne”), who introduced herself to Haydn by sending him a piano reduction she had done of one of his symphonies. Finally, the second movement of Mozart’s flute quartet is nearly identical to the sixth movement of the “Gran partita” Serenade for 13 wind instruments, K. 361, although which came first is a matter of some controversy.

Haydn’s Symphony 94 in D Major (Surprise) benefited from the intimate and good acoustics of the hall. Sarasa produced a nearly symphonic effect, a wide range of dynamics, with strong tutti producing more sound than the sum of the individual parts. Led magnificently by Jesse Irons’ first violin and punctuated by Emi Ferguson’s bold flute, the first movement began with lyrical colors, quickly transforming to a fully alert and expressive vivace, the players beautifully in synch. The famous “surprise” andante worked especially well with the sextet of two violins, viola, cello, flute and continuo. It was elegant and witty, but tender, Irons’s violin playful and Ferguson’s flute light and sprightly. Sarasa played the menuetto with a distinctive interpretive insight, as both a ländler and a scherzo, bringing out Haydn’s unbuttoned humor combined with an innovative and complex compositional technique, the faux rusticity overlaid with a daring display of instrumental artistry. The propulsive and energetic finale was notable for the subtle interplay among the instruments alternating with forceful unity.

The pianoforte came out of the background for Maggie Cole to perform the Sonata No. 59 in E-flat, Hob. XVI: 49. Before playing, Cole spoke briefly about Haydn’s longing for the intimacy that he didn’t have in his marriage but did have with some of his students, especially von Genzinger. In Cole’s thoughtful performance, we heard not only Haydn’s beautiful sound, but also his desire to touch another person with the novelty and depth of feeling of his composition. The moments of stürm und drang were stirring, but were also contained and constantly put into perspective. The trio section of the adagio was especially moving, as Haydn had promised Marianne that it would be. In the finale, Cole made us aware that Haydn could be very daring with his palette, but in an understated way—as if he wanted a witness to his abilities, but without the need to show it to the entire world.

The Mozart Flute Quartet in C Major, K. 284b is often dismissed as minor, trivial and even spurious. This performance was convincingly Mozart, played with a deep sense of curiosity about where we would be led. In the andantino, theme and variations, the Sarasa players outlined a trajectory. The first variation, led by Ferguson’s joyous flute, was animated, youthful and expansive. The second variation, led by Irons’ violin, took on a more decisive, strident and determined feel. In the third variation, Merton’s cello took the lead, giving a grave and more sedate tone in dialog with Jenny Stirling’s haunting viola. It was followed by the anguished, melancholy and mournful fourth variation, ending in a mysterious and dramatic C major chord. Sarasa gave an elegiac reading to the ensuing adagio variation, the flute looking back nostalgically and the strings ominous. The brief final allegro variation, slightly ländler-like, brought the piece to a swift close. We were left with the feeling of having been brought through the four Ages of Man, from youth to outre-tombe, with two ages added, one unearthly and full of regret and the other with our feet back on earth.

Before the last piece, Timothy Merton gave a straight-forward but deeply affecting account of Sarasa’s recent visit to juvenile incarceration facilities in the Boston area. Maggie Cole recalled that when lunchtime was announced, the audience said “We’re not hungry.” By reminding us of the power of music to help us navigate distress, Sarasa gave a special depth of meaning to the concert.

The pièce de resistance of the evening was Haydn’s Symphony No. 101 in D Major, the “Clock.” The Sarasa six brought an investigative approach that gave us not only beautiful music, but provided a serious meditation on our human experience of time. They exploited the adagio/presto contrast of the first movement to go beyond the device usually attributed to Haydn of providing the audience with time to settle, turning it into a contrast between a gestational time, searching and brooding, and a veritable birth of the symphony into the open air, bright, sparkling and vivacious, with cacophonous tutti tinged with a brass-like shine. The andante was played with panache, irony and drama, the violin shaping the sound rhetorically as though struggling with the insistent meter of the clock, alternately defying and embracing it, then straying away from it whimsically, then acknowledging it once again, then rebelling. All of our human ambivalence about time was playfully but poignantly conveyed.

Sarasa file photo (Chirstopher Greenleaf)
Sarasa file photo (Chirstopher Greenleaf)

The movement culminated in a dramatic, theatrical eruption of Time as something formidable and tyrannical, gradually reduced back to an apparent taming into silence only to return inexorably, a joke shared with the audience—forcing us to laugh at our presumption that we can shield ourselves from time by reducing it to meter. As though searching for a solution, the menuetto molded time into a rhythm, shape and structure that humans can inhabit collectively through dance. Sarasa’s playing suggested that through our deliberate artistic efforts, we create a context in which comfort is possible, but also in which a precious lone individual voice can safely emerge, as attested by the voice of the flute in the two Trio sections. The finale returned us to the more complex rhythms of daily time, characterized by versatility and flexibility, ending with a beautiful fugue. Sarasa brought out the instrumental richness of this movement, with an aesthetic that was all of the above: gestational, dramatic, swift, alert, surprising, culminating in a fugal embrace of life. In short, they displayed the heart of Haydn’s genius, showing that we handle time best by not thinking about it at all.

The program repeated Sunday evening in Concord at 7:00 for the happy few who are indifferent to football.

Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.

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