Van Swieten Trio

Haydn: Piano Trios (Complete)

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This is the first recording on historical instruments of Haydn's complete piano trios, and as such it's tailor-made for libraries and other collectors who like to have every slot on the shelf filled in. Libraries in the budget-slashing U.S. will be especially pleased about the price; thanks to the classical-music-by-the-pound ways of Holland's Brilliant label, you can have the 10 CDs of this set for just a bit more than the price of a single-disc frontline release from other labels. And you even get a bit beyond what you pay for. The sound seems as though it's coming out of the speaker in an elevator. But keyboardist Bart van Oort uses a range of instruments in order to take into account the rapid development of keyboard instruments that occurred over Haydn's long career. The earliest among these works would have been played on a harpsichord, while Haydn tailored the late London masterworks to a piano that was coming close to what we know today. He doesn't go to either extreme, but he uses instruments that provide the proper balance for most of the music. Of course, no dates for any of the trios are given in the small booklet; you have to extract what information you can by jumping between two seemingly disconnected essays that cover the same territory. The trios are recorded roughly chronologically.

There's no question that historical performance practice has something to bring to these works. Haydn's trios, especially the early ones, have been mostly ignored by performers because of the frequent doublings of the piano parts in the stringed instruments. But his wit was as reliable in this genre as in any other, and the sensitive performances here capture the gradual emancipation of the keyboard from its role as continuo in the trio sonatas that were the ancestors of the piano trio. The early trios are worth hearing in performances like these, where the cello seems to back up the left hand of the piano rather than simply duplicating it. More elaborate recordings of the trios on historical instruments are available on CPO's ongoing series, and to see what can be done with the late London trios, try the budget reissue on Harmonia Mundi of a disc by the historical-instruments trio of fortepianist Patrick Cohen, violinist Erich Höbarth, and cellist Christophe Coin. But Brilliant's set certainly brings a lot of hitherto little-known Haydn into circulation at a rock-bottom price.

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