Remembering Haydn in 'Splendid' Performances
Joseph Haydn: Complete Piano Trios. Haydn Trio Eisenstadt: Harald Kosik, piano; Verena Stourzh, violin; Hannes Gradwohl, cello. (Phoenix Music and Media, Vienna)
The year 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), a composer who occupies a special place in music history. Affectionately nicknamed "Papa Haydn," he was revered by his contemporaries, notably Mozart, but his influence on music and composition extended far beyond his own time. Haydn has been called the father of the classical symphony and string quartet, but he composed prolifically in every form and genre and was enormously innovative and versatile; the variety of his music never ceases to amaze.
The 39 piano trios recorded on this eight CD set are a substantial part of his voluminous chamber music. They were written at three different times: in the 1750s-60s in Vienna, in the 1780s at the Esterhazy estate in Eisenstadt, and in 1794-95 in London. In Haydn's time, good pianists outnumbered good string players, so the piano predominates and the cello adds sonority by doubling the bass. In the earlier trios, the violin mainly supports and accompanies; later, it becomes increasingly independent and important. The familiar "London" trios have the greatest substance and emotional depth, but the less familiar ones also harbor priceless treasures.
The diversity of form, texture, character, and expression is extraordinary. These works are full of surprises, like deceptive cadences and recapitulations that are really second developments. The modulations are pure magic, sometimes gradual, sometimes sudden with a leap into a new, wildly remote key after a long pause.
The performances on this recording are splendid in every way: texturally clear, tonally pure and beautiful, constantly expressive. The phrasing is elegant; repeats are meticulously observed and discreetly embellished; the passagework sparkles; the melodies sing and soar. The pianist is not only a consummate virtuoso but a sensitive partner. He even has the rare ability to subdue his left hand to let the cello stand out. The recordings were made over several years, so the recorded balance varies considerably from disc to disc. Still, it generally favors the piano. The players bring out Haydn's seriousness and humor, drama and serenity, grandeur and simplicity. Only the most famous movement, the "Gypsy Rondo," is marred by exaggerated accents and tempo changes.
Haydn's works seem to be beset by numerical problems. Hoboken's catalogue lists the trios as Volume XV, but the individual trios are not always numbered chronologically. On this recording, the sequence seems entirely arbitrary; the program notes offer an analysis of each trio but not in the order of performance, which necessitates considerable hunting around in the booklet. One can imagine Haydn smiling at the contrast between this confusion and the pristine clarity of his music.