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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): "Trios"

The Queen's Chamber Trio

rec: [n.d.], [n.p.]
Lyrichord - LEMS 8061 ( 2007) (55'39")

Trio in C (H XV,27); Trio in E (H XV,28); Trio in E flat minor (H XV,31)

Elaine Comparone, harpsichord; Robert Zubrycki, violin; Peter Seidenberg, cello

One of the main issues of the performance of music for or with keyboard in the second half of the 18th century is the choice of instrument. During this about 50 years the harpsichord was gradually overshadowed by the fortepiano. But at the time the latter was the main keyboard instrument on the concert platform many music lovers still played the harpsichord at home. It is therefore understandable that most keyboard pieces were published with the indication "for the fortepiano or the harpsichord". Even the earliest keyboard works by Beethoven were printed with this kind of indication. One shouldn't conclude from this that it didn't matter to the composers which instrument was used or that these two instruments were equal to them.

The music of Haydn is a special case as he seems to have held on to the harpsichord longer than most of his colleagues. From this perspective it is rather strange that today, even by representatives of the historical performance practice, this fact is largely ignored, as his keyboard music and his chamber music with keyboard - in particular the 'piano trios' - are usually played with a fortepiano. Most players opt for the most simple solution: they take one instrument - for instance a copy of a Walter fortepiano - to perform all Haydn's music for or with keyboard.

But there is general agreement that Haydn had the harpsichord in mind in his works at least until well into the 1770s. Fact is that it was only in 1788 that he was able to buy his first fortepiano. That doesn't necessarily exclude the fortepiano to play his keyboard parts of the about 10 years before that, but historically it is much more appropriate to play them on the harpsichord. And in most cases they just sound better that way.

The present recording brings three trios for keyboard, violin and cello which all date from the mid-1790s. At that time Haydn clearly had the fortepiano in mind while writing for the keyboard. An additional indication are the dynamic markings in the keyboard parts in these trios. But here the harpsichord is used, with reference to the use of indications like 'for fortepiano or harpsichord' in many prints of keyboard music of that time. But like I wrote above the main reason for that was commercial: the music of the 1790s is usually written for the fortepiano. The harpsichordist has to use some tricks to realise or at least suggest the dynamic markings Haydn has written down. I don't understand why Elaine Comparone makes life so difficult for herself, in particular as she uses an instrument which is hardly appropriate: a copy of a harpsichord by Blanchet, built in 1720. If she prefers the harpsichord she could have opted for a late 18th-century instrument, for instance a Shudi or a Kirkman, which both had a pedal putting the 'Venetian swell' into action, creating a kind of crescendo effect.

In the booklet she writes that she plays "whatever music lends itself to the instrument. As long as it is idiomatic, I will play it". Apparently she believes the keyboard parts of these trios lend themselves to the harpsichord and are idiomatic. I beg to differ. Listening to these trios I am convinced more than ever that they don't lend themselves to the harpsichord. The keyboard parts beg for dynamic contrasts, much stronger than the harpsichord used here can deliver, despite all Ms Comparone's efforts. The booklet calls the ensemble's approach "decidedly revolutionary". Most revolutions bring nothing worthwhile, and this 'revolution' isn't any different.

As if the use of the wrong keyboard instrument isn't bad enough the overall interpretation is outright boring. Any expression and any humour - Haydn's trios are full of them - are absent here. The second movement of the Trio in C is an andante, but is played here at an outrageously slow tempo. The first and last movements - allegro and presto respectively - are not much better. The latter movement is destroyed by continuous and arbitrary diminuendos. The Trio in E flat is much of the same: the opening andante of this two-movement trio is played at the speed of an adagio. In addition there is really no expression in this piece at all. The Trio in E comes off best: at least the tempi of the second and third movements are more satisfying.

The violinist uses quite a lot of vibrato, much more than just as ornamentation. Perhaps the cellist does the same, but that is difficult to hear, as the balance of the recording favours the two other instruments.

The presentation of the disc leaves something to be desired: nowhere date and place of the recording are mentioned, and the numbers in the Hoboken catalogue are only given in the booklet, not on the back of the case, which is very inconvenient for people looking at this disc in their record shop.

In a nutshell: this is a most disappointing and unsatisfying recording which doesn't do any justice to these splendid trios.

Johan van Veen ( 2008)

Relevant links:

The Queen's Chamber Trio


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