Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Octet (Divertimento No. 1) in G (H X,12) [14:09]
Quintet in D (H X,10) [13:46]
Octet (Divertimento No. 3) in G (H X,5) [14:08]
Octet in D (H X,1) [17:12]
Combattimento Consort Amsterdam/Jan Willem de Vriend
rec. 13-15 January 2009, Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. DDD

The title of this disc simply says "Divertimenti", but the programme specifically concentrates on music for an instrument which is associated with Haydn as with no other composer: the baryton. If he hadn't written so much music for this instrument it may well have been completely forgotten. But as his employer, Nikolaus I Esterházy, was a devoted player of the instrument, Haydn composed more than 160 pieces for him to play.

Leopold Mozart gave this description of the instrument in his Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule (1756): "This instrument has, like the gamba, six or seven strings. The neck is very wide, with the back surface hollowed out and open, under which run nine or ten brass and steel strings. These are plucked with the thumb, so that in fact whilst the main melodic line is played with the bow on the gut strings strung on the front of the instrument, the thumb simultaneously plays the bass line by plucking the strings under the neck. It is for this reason that the pieces need to be specifically composed. It is, incidentally, one of the most graceful instruments." The German composer and author Friedrich August Weber (1753-1806) described the sound as a combination of viola da gamba and harp and wrote that its sound moved him to tears.

At first Haydn only reluctantly composed music for the baryton, mainly because he wasn't familiar with it. When his employer urged him to write more, he decided to study the instrument in order to get acquainted with it. He discovered that Nikolaus was wrong in stating that only one tonality could be used. After thoroughly examining the possibilities he reported to Nikolaus that it was perfectly possible to compose in more keys. As the gambist and baryton player José Vázquez told his audience during a concert, "the Prince was not amused".

By all accounts Nikolaus' abilities were limited and Haydn took this into consideration. That is noticeable in the four compositions recorded here by the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam. The three Divertimenti ŕ 8, also known as Octets, were originally written for baryton, two violins, viola, cello, double bass and two horns. But most of them were published in a version in which the baryton part was replaced by the transverse flute, and as not all original versions have been preserved some reconstruction has had to take place.

On this disc the Octet in G (H X,5) is played as it was printed, with a flute instead of the baryton. Here the trick Haydn used to make things easier for his employer is most noticeable: the flute (baryton) mostly plays unisono with one of the other instruments. If there are any solo passages for the baryton in these works, they are mostly rather easy. One of the characteristics of the baryton, the possibility to bow and pluck the strings simultaneously, is completely avoided. A performer can do it nevertheless, as a kind of 'ornamentation', but this is not applied here. Considering the scoring of the three octets this seems quite justifiable.

In the Octets the two horns play a remarkable role. Although they are mostly used to support the ensemble and add some colour to it these parts are often quite virtuosic and the horn players are given the opportunity to show off now and then. This reflects the quality of the Esterházy orchestra, whose best players were probably involved in the performance of the Octets.

A special case is the Quintet as it is called here. It is one of two Divertimenti ŕ 5, of which only the one played here has been preserved. It is scored for baryton, viola, bass (here played by cello and double bass) and two horns. It contains hardly any solo passages for any of the instruments, unlike the Octets. It is a typical divertimento with its sequence of a slow movement, followed by a fast movement and closed by a menuet. The Octets show greater variety in this respect: the Octets H X, 1 and 12 begin with a moderate movement - moderato and allegro moderato respectively -, which is followed by an adagio, whereas the last movement is a presto. The Octet in G (H X,5) follows the pattern of the Quintet, but the last movement is another presto instead of a menuet.

Haydn's music with baryton belongs to the category of musical entertainment. But we should be aware that this was very different from what in our time is considered musical entertainment. In the hands of composers like Haydn and Mozart this kind of music is anything but simple and easy. Haydn's divertimenti are music of high calibre; anything less would have been an insult to Haydn's employer. Therefore, if played well they are still able to captivate and at the same time entertain the modern listener. That is certainly the case here, as the Combattimento Consort gives spiritual and technically brilliant performances of these four divertimentos.

The ensemble plays modern instruments but in its interpretation it follows the principles of historical performance practice. I have heard it many times on the radio in concert registrations, and I have often noticed that it applies these principles more radically than some period instrument ensembles. The strings play virtually without vibrato which guarantees a very transparent sound, and the interpretation is very gestural and dramatic by emphasizing contrasts in colour and dynamics. The baryton is very well played here by Freek Borstlap who has his own baryton trio, and is fully integrated in the ensemble.

The complete works with baryton by Haydn have been recorded for Brilliant Classics on period instruments by the Esterházy Ensemble, but I can imagine that some may find this a little too much of a good thing. For them this is an excellent way to get acquainted with the instrument and Haydn's music for it. I wouldn't be surprised if listening to this disc led them to buy the complete set anyway.

Johan van Veen