Haydn’s rarely heard cantata offers applause for an Abbot’s celebration
A token of Haydn’s rapidly growing fame in the late 1760s was a prestigious commission from the Cistercian monastery of Zwettl for a Latin congratulatory cantata to celebrate the Abbot’s golden jubilee. In the tradition of applausus works—then a popular genre in Austrian monasteries—the text hymns the joys of the monastic life in a discourse between the four cardinal virtues (Temperance, Prudence, Justice and Fortitude), plus the sobering figure of Theology. Typically, too, Biblical and Hellenic imagery commingle. As the monks would have expected, the music’s forms and idiom are essentially those of mid-18th-century opera seria. Gargantuan da capo arias hold sway, with just three ensembles—a quartet, a duet and a final coro—for variety.
The recipe is hardly a promising one for modern ears; and only the most partisan would claim Applausus as great Haydn. Several numbers lapse into elegantly anonymous note-spinning, not least the tenor aria with violin obbligato, with its meandering chains of thirds and sixths over harmonically static accompaniments. But there are many memorable things, including a whooping aria for Theology—a reminder of Haydn’s magnificently ingenuous remark that whenever he thought of God his heart leapt for joy—a D minor number for Fortitude in Haydn’s most turbulent Sturm und Drang vein, and an eloquent aria for Temperance, warmly coloured by a concertante bassoon part.
This new recording, recorded at concerts in Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl, scores decisively over its sole predecessor, directed by Patrick Fournillier (Opus 111, 4/93—nla). Andreas Spering’s familiar penchant for mobile, springy tempi pays particular dividends in moderato movements such as the quartet and the duet, where Fournillier’s more easy-going approach fails to mitigate the music’s potential long-windedness. The period instruments of Capella Augustina play with that much more colour and imagination than Fournillier’s modern-instrument band (a word, too, for the excellent unnamed harpsichordist in the florid solo of Justice’s first aria). Most crucially, Spering fields a finer, more stylistically assured team of soloists. Donát Havár, a pleasing lyrical tenor, copes gracefully with Haydn’s roulades in his two arias, while soprano Anna Palimina’s crystalline tone and shapely phrasing make Temperance’s aria a highlight of the whole performance. The acoustic is more resonant than I find ideal, though I soon adjusted. While Applausus is always likely to remain on the margins, there are musical rewards here for Haydn aficionados with the patience to sit through the work’s intermittent longueurs.
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