Sunday, April 15, 2012

Haydn chamber music

For many years I resisted the appeal of Joseph Haydn's music. It seemed too clever to be profound, too pleasant to be emotionally affecting. Haydn also focussed on vocal music to a lesser extent than either Handel or Mozart, and his surviving operas, unlike theirs, are rarely performed or recorded. Perhaps Haydn's greatest accomplishments were in the string quartet and the symphony, two genres that I rarely listen to. Until recently, anyway: over the course of the last year or so I've come to have a greater appreciation for Haydn's music; and to my surprise, that appreciation developed through remarkable performances of his chamber music.

Most of Haydn's career was spent in the service of the Esterhazy court. Haydn's patron Prince Nikolaus I was an amateur musician whose favorite instrument was an unusual type of viol called the baryton. Like the larger viola da gamba, the baryton had seven bowed strings and a fretted neck; like a viola d'amore, the baryton had a second set of strings that resonated when the first set were bowed; and like the theorbo, the baryton's sympathetic strings could be plucked (the baryton had a hollow neck, and the strings were plucked from behind, with the thumb of the left hand). Haydn composed about 175 pieces for the baryton, most of which were trios for viola, baryton and cello (Haydn himself probably played the viola part). I was introduced to these works through a wonderful recording on the Hungaroton label by Balázs Kakuk (baryton), Péter Lukács (viola) and Tibor Párkányi (cello). The combination of the three low stringed instruments creates a lovely sound, and lends more a hint of melancholy to the slower movements.

Here is a sample: the adagio from Trio no. 114, performed on 18th-century instruments by José Vazquez (baryton), Lucia Krommer (cello), and Christa Opriessnig (viola):

Hearing this marvelous music played on 18th-century instruments inspired me to seek out other period-instrument Haydn performances. I don't remember how I first discovered the string quartet recordings of the Quatuor Mosaïques, but they have such warmth and such a beautiful blending of sound that my resistance to Haydn was completely overcome.

Here is Quatuor Mosaïques performing the adagio from Haydn's Opus 77 No. 1. The musicians are Erich Höbarth (violin), Andrea Bischof (violin), Anita Mitterer (viola), and Christoph Coin (cello):

Quatuor Mosaïques has recorded Haydn's quartets Op. 20/32, 33, 64, 76, and 77 along with the quartet arrangement of The Seven Last Words of Christ (Op. 51). They are available in two boxed sets at a cost of under $7 per disc—an amazing bargain for music and performances of this quality.

We were privileged to see Quatuor Mosaïques in concert on Friday night in Berkeley in a program spanning the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Haydn's Quartet Opus 76 No. 4 ("Sunrise"), Felix Mendelssohn's Quartet Op. 13, "Ist es Wahr?" (Is it true?), and Franz Schubert's Quartet Op. 29 No. 1, "Rosamunde." After playing together for more than 25 years these musicians are perfectly attuned to one another, and each quartet became a subtle conversation. As good as their recordings are, their live performance offered a richness and spontaneity that no recording can match.

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