Review: Haydn’s London Ladies

Review: Haydn’s London Ladies

He is one of the most influential composers of his generation. Not a prodigy like Mozart or eventually deafened and virtuosic like Beethoven, but Franz Joseph Haydn, like J.S. Bach, set in motion a style that is instantly evocative of that period in classical music. Not to mention, as someone who has spent many hours playing his extensive repertoire of piano sonatas, he is a personal favourite, considered to be instrumental in developing chamber music and musical form. Yet even a great composer such as Haydn requires inspiration from somewhere and more often than not (as is the case with great works of art) Haydn was struck by a set of female muses; those that roused his creative gift, challenged his works and forced him to better himself, even those that took to his bed. Clare McCaldin presents a set of less well-known works that can be dedicated to, or at least in part attributed to, Haydn’s London Ladies. Five women – Therese Jansen, Anne Hunter, Harriett Abrams, Rebecca Schroeter and Lady Emma Hamilton, are shown to have exerted more than a gentle influence over the Esterhazy’s most renowned Kapellmeister. McCaldin and pianist Paul Turner chart a rough course through Haydn’s time in London and the lives that he touched during his travels.

Mezzo-soprano McCaldin and Turner take their audience through a potted selection of works inspired by trips across the Channel, ladies lavished upon by Haydn in a world where equal rights and feminism were not even considered to be pipe dreams. It’s refreshing to see that things have changed 300 years later… One thing can be said for these five however – they may have not been considered on an equal footing to their male counterparts, but each had an extraordinary talent that only served to benefit the maestro himself. From political persuasion and capital investment to creative talent for verse and mastery over performance, the combined product from these women has a profound effect on Haydn’s output.

This 90 minute concert mixes vocal folk tunes with operetta and extracts from inspired piano sonatas, one of Haydn’s most famous composing styles. McCaldin clearly has a grasp over these works, delivering them with confidence and personality. Her talent lies in her ability to tell a story and act through the song, particularly important in this selection of pieces. “She never told her love”, set to a section from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night exudes tenderness and frailty – McCaldin has a competent grasp on the meaning behind the words and this comes through in her trembling vocal. Likewise, her shock and horror turned swiftly to stoic fury when portraying Ariadne in “Arianna a Naxos” delivers depth and dimension as the highlight of the evening. This piece in particular shows a connection between singer, verse, music and pianist; it projects through the echoes of the church alcoves and is fitting for this inviting Anglican setting.

Turner is a satisfactory accompaniment to proceedings and adds background colour during parts of McCaldin’s historical narrations. Given the setting and the composer, the pieces are at times too heavy footed on the damper pedal, losing definition in the notes and light-fingered runs. The effect is more like an organ attempting to fill the religious space and failing. This can also affect McCaldin’s vocal – an attempt to mimic these legato passages in “Fidelity” and “The Mermaid’s Song” at times shrouds the lyrics, which lose clarity and hence meaning.

Given the breadth of knowledge and experience in Haydn’s London Ladies, despite similar circumstances, the overall programme didn’t display extensive variety; in the main these choices are of a similarly cheerful disposition, legato lines with equivalent in delivery. A relaxing concert that puts its audience at ease to while away the time, some more emotionally intense, deep and dark selections can leave a more lasting impact and elevate the evening to a more resounding success.

Composer: Joseph Haydn

Singer: Clare McCaldin

Accompanist: Paul Turner

Producer: McCaldin Arts

Performed on 20 September 2016 at St Paul’s Knightsbridge, London