The end of the 18th century saw a gradual
change in the position of chamber music within the classical music
canon. By the early 19th century chamber music came
to be seen as one of the most serious and significant genres.
But in the earlier parts of the 18th century, chamber
music was simply that - music played together in private; music
aimed at good amateurs. Haydn's piano trios of the 1780s reflect
this as the string parts are described as 'obbligato'. This reflects
the tendency of amateurs to add 'ad libitum' string parts to existing
piano sonatas. Haydn's trios from this period, written whilst
he was still at Esterhaza, to a certain extent reflect his recognition
of the taste for amateur performance and his ability to craft
interesting music that was capable of being played by amateurs.
Whilst some of the trios were written for neighbours, such as
the Countess Vizcay, Haydn presumably also had half an eye on
the rather lucrative middle class publishing markets in London,
Paris and Vienna. This CD from the Australian group, the Ensemble
of the Classic Era, explores this repertoire by juxtaposing three
of Haydn's piano trios with contemporary arrangements of three
of his symphonies. All the music on this disc can be convincingly
described as being written for intimate performance by amateurs,
rather than the concert hall.
The Piano Trio No. 12 in E minor, Hob. XV:12
was published in 1789 as part of a set of three and newspaper
reviews from this period emphasis the playability of the music.
The opening Allegro moderato is a dramatic and intense movement,
making use of the interval of a tritone. The violin has a tendency
to dominate the ensemble in this movement, and this is a fault
that occurs throughout this set. The Andante cavatina includes
a lovely section for piano and pizzicato strings but the Ensemble
of the Classic Era make rather heavy weather of this, with far
too emphatic pizzicato. The final Rondo is a delightful movement,
tricky in places for the players - the amateurs of Haydn's day
must have been pretty good. The ensemble show moments of rhythmic
instability, something that happens throughout the CD. This is
not a big thing and in a live performance would be quite acceptable,
but is less so in a studio performance.
The Piano Trio No. 14 in A flat major Hob. XV:14
was published in Vienna in 1790 as part of a group of 4 trios
and it was included in performances that Haydn gave in 1792 in
London, the keyboard part being played by Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
These concerts of Salomon's in London are the first known example
of the public performances of Haydn's trios. The opening Allegro
moderato is inclined to the dramatic and includes some nicely
pained dissonances between cello and piano. The beautiful Adagio
includes a central minor section which again uses pizzicato strings.
The piano has some delicate ornaments but the string accompaniment
is again rather heavy handed. This is followed by one of Haydn's
joyously perky finales.
The final trio, Piano Trio No. 18 in A Major,
Hob. XV:18 was part of a group of 4 piano trios that were printed
in London in 1794. This set was dedicated to the widow of Prince
Anton Esterhazy. Prince Anton was the man who had disbanded the
Esterhazy Court orchestra in 1790, thus allowing Haydn time to
travel and capitalise on his enormous reputation abroad. The second
movement is another of those with lovely filigree decorations
in the piano. This movement leads into the gypsy style finale
and the Ensemble of the Classic Era are at their best in this
Arrangements of symphonic works for chamber ensemble
are standard currency in the classical era. These enabled people
to get to know works in an era before radio and records. Occasionally
composers could be persuaded to arrange their own works. When
this happens, for example in Beethoven's own arrangement of his
4th symphony, the resulting work is usually interesting
in its own right. But quite often the works are simple hack work,
taking the path of least resistance and providing a rather lacklustre
transcription. In the case of the transcriptions on this disc,
Symphony no. 92 (the 'Oxford') was done by the composer Jan Ladislav
Dussek and he had the confidence to re-work the music for the
new ensemble. The remaining two transcriptions are by Johann Peter
Salomon and are pretty conservative.
Whilst one can but admire Dussek's skill in reducing
the 'Oxford' symphony down to a piano and violin duet, I am not
sure that the gains are sufficient to outweigh the losses. What
is seriously lacking in all three of the transcriptions is that
wonderful variety of tone colour that Haydn could bring to a symphony.
But these arrangements have very different feel to the Piano Trios.
The symphonies rather come over as less subtle, more robust works
with an inevitable amount of padding and the balance between the
piano and the strings is inevitably different to a real Haydn
Piano Trio. The Ensemble of the Classic Era play this music robustly
and convincingly, but the results are a little monochrome.
The Ensemble of the Classic Era are undoubtedly
a talented group and if these were live performances they would
be highly acceptable. But there are occasional moments of unsteadiness.
And I felt a lack of shapely phrasing in the string parts along
with a reluctance to use vibrato even as an expressive device.
Generally the performances of the Piano Trios lacked the grazioso
feel that should be brought to much of Haydn's writing for this
combination of instruments.
This set is probably of greatest interest for
those people who want the transcriptions of Haydn's symphonies.
The performances here of the piano trios are only really adequate
and can be bettered on a number of other CD's. But the transcriptions,
though not interesting enough for the general listener, provide
a valuable document of one of the byways of 18th century