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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): Music for baryton

[I] "Complete Baryton Trios"
Esterházy Ensemble; Piccolo Concerto Wiena

rec: Sept 2006 - July 2008, Eisenstadt, Esterházy Castle
Brilliant Classics - 93907 (21 CDs) (© 2009) (c25h)

[II] "The Private Pleasure of Prince Esterházy"
The Finnish Baryton Trio

rec: Feb 28 - March 1, 2008, Imatra, Konserttihovi
SIBA Records - SACD-1001 (© 2009) (65'08")

[I] Adagio for baryton in D; Adagio for baryton in D (H XII,13); Adagio for baryton, 2 horns, viola and bass in D (H X,7); Cassations for two barytons and bass (H XII,19); Divertimenti ŕ 8 (H X,1-6,12)a; Divertimento ŕ 5 in D (H X,10)a; Divertimenti for baryton in C, in D, in G, in A, in A (H XII,18); Duets for two barytons (H XII,1-6,11); Moderato for 2 barytons and 2 horns in D (H X,9); Sonatas for baryton and cello (H XII,7-12,15-17); Trios for baryton, violin and cello (H XI,89-91); Trios for baryton, viola and cello (H XI,1-88,92-126)
[II] Trio in D (H XI,63); Trio in D (H XI,97); Trio in G (H XI,32); Trio in A (H XI,66); Trio in a minor (H XI,87);

[I] [Esterházy Ensemble] Michael Brüssing, baryton; András Bolyki, violin, viola; Maria Andrásfalvy-Brüssing, baryton, cello; [Piccolo Concerto Wien] Jenping Chien, Johanna Gamarith, violin; Roberto Sensi, violone; Gabriele Rocchieti, Fabio Fontana, horn
[II] Markus Kuikka, baryton; Markus Sarantolo, viola; Jussi Seppänen, cello

The baryton is almost exclusively associated with one composer: Franz Joseph Haydn. If he hadn't written so much music for this instrument it may well have been completely forgotten. But as his employer, Nikolaus I Esterházy, was a devoted player of the baryton, Haydn composed more than 160 pieces for him to play.

Leopold Mozart gave this description of the instrument in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756): "This instrument has, like the gamba, six or seven strings. The neck is very wide, with the back surface hollowed out and open, under which run nine or ten brass and steel strings. These are plucked with the thumb, so that in fact whilst the main melodic line is played with the bow on the gut strings strung on the front of the instrument, the thumb simultaneously plays the bass line by plucking the strings under the neck. It is for this reason that the pieces need to be specifically composed. It is, incidentally, one of the most graceful instruments." The German composer and author Friedrich August Weber (1753-1806) described the sound as a combination of viola da gamba and harp and wrote that its sound moved him to tears.

At first Haydn only reluctantly composed music for the baryton, mainly because he wasn't familiar with the instrument. But when his employer urged him to write more, he decided to study the instrument in order to get acquainted with it. He discovered that Nikolaus was wrong in stating that only one tonality could be used in music for the baryton. After thoroughly examining the possibilities of the baryton he reported to Nikolaus that it was perfectly possible to compose in more keys. The Prince was not amused.

To all accounts Nikolaus' abilities were limited and Haydn took this into consideration. This explains the fact that the sympathetic strings - the "strings under the neck" in Leopold Mozart's description - are mostly restricted to their resonating functions. Only in about one third of the trios for baryton, viola and cello the sympathetic strings are plucked, and mostly not simultaneously with the bowing.

In addition to these trios Haydn composed seven Divertimenti ŕ 8 - also known as 'Octets' -, scored for baryton, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and two horns. Here the trick Haydn used to make things easier for his employer is that the baryton is mostly playing unisono with one of the other instruments. If there are any solo passages for the baryton in these works, they are mostly rather easy. The possibility to bow and pluck the strings simultaneously is completely avoided.

Most of these Divertimenti were published in a version in which the baryton was replaced by a transverse flute. For the music market pieces with a part for the baryton were not profitable, as this instrument was seldom played. Not all original versions have been preserved, therefore some reconstructions have to be made to make them playable with the baryton again. In the 'Octets' the two horns play a remarkable role. Although they are mostly used to support the ensemble and add some colour to it these parts are often quite virtuosic and the horn players are given the opportunity to show off now and then. This reflects the quality of the Esterházy orchestra, whose best players were probably involved in the performance of the Divertimenti.

The horns are also part of the scoring of the Divertimento ŕ 5, one of two pieces for baryton, viola, bass and two horns - the second has been lost. This 'Quintet', as it is often called, contains hardly any solo passages for any of the instruments, unlike the Octets. It is a typical divertimento with its sequence of a slow movement, followed by a fast movement and closed by a menuet. The 'Octets' show greater variety in this respect: the Divertimenti H X, 1 and 12 begin with a moderate movement - moderato and allegro moderato respectively -, which is followed by an adagio, whereas the last movement is a presto. The Divertimento in G (H X,5) follows the pattern of the 'Quintet', but the last movement is another presto instead of a menuet.

Haydn's music with baryton belongs to the category of musical entertainment. But we should be aware that this was very different from what in our time is considered musical entertainment. In the hands of composers like Haydn and Mozart this kind of music is anything but simple and easy. Haydn's divertimenti are music of high calibre; anything less would have been an insult to his employer. Therefore, if played well it still is able to captivate and at the same time entertain the modern listener.

Even so, I can imagine that some music lovers hesitate to listen to Haydn's complete output for the baryton. There are 126 trios in total, and fortunately several recordings are avaliable with a selection from this large corpus. The Finnish Baryton Trio has recorded five trios. They have been well-chosen in that they are quite different in character and therefore guarantee much variety. The Trio in D (H XI,97) belongs to the better-known, and is remarkable in that it consists of seven movements instead of the usual three. This can be explained from the fact that it was written for a special occasion, the birthday of Prince Nikolaus.

The Finnish Baryton Trio delivers fine performances which give a good impression of the quality of Haydn's baryton trios. The tempi are mostly convincing, and although the diverting character comes off well, the performers give them enough weight to reflect their more than average quality. Only sometimes I missed a bit subtlety, and now and then I wished some more differentiation in the treatment of the notes.

I could well imagine that some, having heard a disc with baryton trios, start to get interested and want for more. In that case the complete recording of everything Haydn has written for the baryton by the Esterházy Ensemble - with Piccolo Concerto Wien in the 'Octets' - comes in handy. The word "everything" has to be taken litterally here. Even fragments of pieces with baryton - and sometimes only a short fragment of the baryton part has been preserved - have been recorded, some of them as short as 10 seconds. Such pieces are of a rather documentary nature; I don't think one is playing these pieces regularly. But it is only the last of the 21 discs which is devoted to these fragmentary pieces.

I haven't heard every single piece of this set yet; that is almost impossible, and takes years. After all, as good as Haydn's music is, these works are not meant to be listened to in large numbers at a stretch. Just playing one disc at a time, or even some trios, does much more justice to the character of this music. But on the basis of what I heard I can say that the performances are excellent, and in direct comparison I rate them a little higher than those of the Finnish Baryton Trio.

But I can recommend them both, and it depends on how much one is interested in Haydn and his music for the baryton which production one is going to prefer.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

Relevant links:

Esterházy Ensemble

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