Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival opens with Haydn vocal rarities

By Lawrence Budmen

Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival opened with Clara Osowski performing vocal works of Haydn with fortepianist Leon Schelhase Wednesday night at Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Seraphic Fire’s ambitious Enlightenment Festival opened with vocal works by Franz Joseph Haydn for mezzo-soprano and fortepiano Wednesday night at the Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Acting as the evening’s host and commentator, artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley explained that the festival will present a different side of the compositional output of Haydn, Bach and Handel. Rather than the large symphonic, chamber and vocal scores of these three masters, the concerts will emphasize their lighter and more intimate creations.

The church’s vast interior may not have been the best venue for a vocal recital of songs from the classical era. But through sheer talent and showmanship, mezzo Clara Osowski and keyboard player Leon Schelhase managed to turn the space into a welcoming salon, drawing the audience into every nuance and quirky turn of Haydn’s English and German songs.

Five songs written for English audiences during Haydn’s highly successful residencies in London opened the concert. Written contemporaneously with the late symphonies, these brief works display a surprisingly wide range of emotions and challenge the singer’s talents as an entertainer as well as vocalist. Clara Osowski has been a consistently strong soloist in Seraphic Fire performances. Wearing a striking blue sequined gown, Osowski commanded the stage, bringing out the love, joy, anguish and tragedy of each setting.

Osowski’s instrument conveys warmth and depth with a high extension that freely projects top notes without strain or audible effort. “The Mermaid’s Song” was a beguiling cross between a Mozart aria and folksong, rendered with a light touch. In “The Wanderer,” Osowski’s simplicity of utterance belied the sophistication of Haydn’s writing. “She never told her love” was a charmer, delivered with conviction and a fine sense of classical style. Osowski avoided overdrawn operatic melodrama in “The Spirit’s Song,” setting the tragic mood in simple vocal strokes all the more effectively. ”Pleasing Pain” was an eighteenth century cabaret song that displayed the elegance and beauty of Osowski’s timbre.

The fortepiano is a successor to the harpsichord and a forerunner of modern grand pianos. Unlike the harpsichord or clavichord, the fortepiano produce softer gradations of volume. Playing a 1985 reconstruction by the famed Zuckerman Harpsichord International company, Schelhase conjured up vibrations that had weight and solidity without the tinkling sound of a harpsichord.

Taking the solo spotlight, Schelhase breezed through the Konzert in G Major by Wilhelm Friedmann Bach. This score reflects the early classical style of the composer-sons of J.S. Bach. The opening Allegro non troppo allowed Schelhase a chance to display his speed and the instrument’s flexible dexterity. Heavily ornamented fragments enhanced the aristocratic graciousness of the Andante. The final Vivace was spirited indeed, Schelhase’s fleet touch giving the music extra sparkle.

Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos, the program’s featured work, was a full-blown operatic scena. Haydn’s operas are chock full of elegant arias and deft orchestral writing but the master of the symphony and string quartet did not have the towering librettist-collaborators that Mozart worked with. He predicted that his stage works would not travel past the court theater at the Esterhazy palace and, despite occasional revivals, history has proven him largely right.

Based on the same tale of the princess Arianne’s abandonment by Theseus on a deserted island as Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, Haydn’s cantata is a veritable gathering storm of heartbreak, anger and grief expressed in music that takes classical era restraint to its very limits. One can hear the Beethoven of the dramatic concert aria Ah! Perfido just around the corner in Haydn’s mini-drama.

Osowski bathed the heroine’s initial recitative of surprise and disbelief in luxuriant tones while the rumbles of Schelhase’s keyboard previewed the despair that is to come. In the first aria, Osowski’s coloration of the Italian text and gutsy lower range suggested the princess’s growing realization of doom. As Arianne sees her lover’s ship leaving, Osowski was riveting in her pungent delivery and tremendous power as a vocal actress bringing fiery rage to the final section. Schelhase’s accompaniment was superb, dovetailing the protagonist’s plight in supple variations of tone. The artists received prolonged applause and cheers for this tour de force.

As a contrast to the cantata’s emotional turmoil, the artists closed with a set of four mostly Haydn songs that were an utter delight. “Das Leben ist ein Traum! (Life is a dream) was an entrancing serenade. Ostrowski turned comedienne  for “Euin sehr gewöhnliche Geschichte. Haydn rarely wrote a better tune than “Der verdienstvolle Sylvius” and singer and keyboardist seemed to enjoy it as much as the audience. “Abschiedslied” has been attributed to Haydn but is actually the work of an unknown composer. Still this song of farewell was an appropriate way to end this unique opening program of Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival.

Seraphic Fire repeats the program 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Seraphic Fire’s Enlightenment Festival opens with Haydn vocal rarities”

  1. Posted Feb 13, 2020 at 11:07 pm by Thomas C Boyd

    I was at this performance and I very much appreciate how you capture things that I perceived but could not put into words nearly so well. Thank you for your perception and clarity in describing performances!

Leave a Comment

Thu Feb 13, 2020
at 1:54 pm
1 Comment