Haydn: Trios pour Nicolaus Esterhazy

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Haydn's trios for baryton, viola, and cello must represent the largest body of works by a major composer that are generally not performed on the instruments for which they were written. The baryton, an unwieldy stringed instrument favored by Haydn's patron, Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, nearly disappeared after Haydn's lifetime. But there are modern players who've mastered it, and a copy of Esterházy's own instrument, among other examples, exists. As Haydn's fame spread across Europe, publishers were happy to issue these trios with the assurance that the top line could be played on violin or flute, and indeed they were likely pleasantly played by trios much like the French-Italian group Rincontro heard on this handsomely designed disc from France's Alpha label. Yet one wishes for an authentic performance. The baryton had six or seven bowed strings, plus a large collection of wire strings that would sympathetically vibrate and could be plucked. It's easy to imagine what would be added by the real thing in some of the trios on the present disc. Consider the trio of the Minuet of the Baryton Trio, Hob. 11/80 (track 2), which seems rather minimalistic but would have a haunting, almost Indian effect with sympathetic strings. The trios contain a number of passages in bare octaves, some of which Haydn's contemporaries, presumably reading scores rather than hearing the works performed live at Esterháza, remarked upon in puzzlement. But sample the beginning of the Minuet of the Baryton Trio, Hob. 11/14 (track 9), for an example: the bare octaves wouldn't be bare on the instrument for which the music was composed. None of this is meant to detract from what's offered on this disc, which generally meets Alpha's high standards. The music nicely matches the painting shown on the cover of the disc, a self-portrait with the daughter of the French court painter Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun; each inserts subtly clever details into a simple, conventional framework. The artwork and the art-historical essay on it are, as usual with Alpha, worth the purchase price, and the sound is superb.

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