Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Trios – Volume 1
Piano Trio No.26 (40) in F sharp minor, Hob.XV:26 (1795) [13:52]
Piano Trio No.24 (38) in D major, Hob.XV:24 (1795) [12:20]
Piano Trio No.25 (39) in G major, Hob.XV:25 (1795) [14:46]
Piano Trio No.31 (41) in E flat minor, Hob.XV:31 (1797) [11:37]
Kungsbacka Piano Trio (Malin Broman (violin), Jesper Svedberg (cello), Simon Crawford Phillips (piano))
rec. April 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, UK. DDD
NAXOS 8.572040 [52:35]

Joseph Haydn was a thorough guy. If he wrote symphonies, he did over a hundred. If he wrote string quartets, he did almost seventy. In piano trios, he stopped at 45. These trios, from the earliest to the latest, are pure delight. For the most part they are upbeat and jovial, just like most Haydn’s output was. But there is enough diversity, as the present selection performed by the Kungsbacka trio demonstrates. Note that there may seem to be a gap in the numeration of trios, but actually they go in a chronological sequence, since later research lead to corrections of the original numeration of the Hoboken catalog.

The Kungsbacka trio was formed in 1997 and has since earned an international recognition; it has already recorded for Naxos the piano trios by Mozart and Schubert. As the liner note informs us, the group’s name was taken from the town in Sweden where they gave their first public performance, and where they established an annual festival.

The first movement of the F sharp minor Trio is in a minor key and starts in a somewhat melancholic mood, but this is Haydn’s “active melancholy”, with the major key lying not so far under the surface. The long and elaborate development section ventures deeper into the minor and shows some unexpected dramatic points and fascinating modulations. The slow movement is an adaptation of the slow movement of the London symphony No.102, with its subtle beauties. It is a widely flowing, pastoral aria. The third movement is not what you’d probably expect from a Haydn finale. It is unhurried and almost serious, with proto-Schubertian grace. The playing of the Kungsbacka trio is excellent in the first movement, and their finale is elegant and has good momentum. But in the slow movement I find their performance a bit hassled.

The first movement of the D major Trio is a typical sonata allegro of the classical period, playful and free. It resembles the first movements of some of Mozart’s piano concertos. The shadows darken in the development section, with its mysterious notes and a certain creeping coldness. The slow movement is gray and gloomy, like a slow march or procession. The skies brighten up again in the finale, with the telling marking Allegro ma dolce. Its middle episode is dark and nervous, but it is surrounded by warm and tender music with a soft smile. In Kungsbacka’s reading, the first movement is a fast ride, but not uncomfortably fast. The slow movement is full of restrained expressivity. In the finale, they are fast, which on one hand reduces the healing qualities of this music, but on the other hand increases the drama of the minor-key episode, and makes it feel more like a true finale.

The first movement of the G major Trio is a lark’s song, alternating between major and minor key. It is an expressive and beautiful set of variations, very Haydnesque, light without shallowness and profound without pompousness. The slow movement is an ethereal romance. It starts calm but gradually reaches passionate heights. The third part is the famous Rondo all’ongarese with its Gypsy and Balkanian twists and imitations of folk instruments. It is happy music, festive and carefree, sewn out of many colorful bits like the costume of Harlequin. The Kungsbacka are sensitive in the first movement. They express emotions without adding external pressure. Their slow movement is again on the fast side. I feel that something is missing. Maybe because of this faster tempo the music does not breathe, it rushes forward, and though it still leaves a profound impression, I am not sure this impression is as deep as it could be in a more relaxed interpretation. The finale is effective, with smart accents. The performers use slight rubato and change the tempo sometimes, to bring a more Gypsy atmosphere. The cello provides excellent droning bass.

The Trio in E flat minor returns us to the minor mode. This work shows more wisdom and weariness than the elegant lightness and jolliness displayed in the earlier trios. It has only two parts, but the deep sense of form allowed the composer to balance the long and contemplative first movement with a short, encouraging second. The first movement combines the features of variations and rondo. The music flows as a narration. This story has bright and sad pages, like a story of life. But Haydn would not be Haydn if he kept on sulking and brooding. The short finale is as sunny and cheerful as you could expect from Haydn. It is not ebullient, but has a gallant dignity. In the first movement, the Kungsbacka are thoughtful and give the music some weight. In the second, their performance is noble and natural.

This impression – noble and natural – can be extended to the entire disc. The musicians of the Kungsbacka piano trio exhibit excellent, deep understanding of the music of Joseph Haydn, the music that above all requires not the virtuosity, not the emotionality, but understanding. The recording is very clear, with a good special definition. The sound is not flat. The three instruments blend perfectly. The selection of the trios on this disc provides enough diversity, so the listening never becomes boring. If you want to explore more of Haydn’s trios, then the classic Beaux Arts box on Phillips has them all in an unbeatable set that will grant you hours and hours of listening bliss. But if having absolutely all the trios seems too much for you (and indeed, the early ones are not at the level of the mature ones), then this set by the Kungbacka is an excellent and easily affordable entry point. Interpretation-wise, they are not radically different from the Beaux Arts, though I feel that the Beaux Arts give more breadth and breathe to the slow movements. Also, the Beaux Arts observe more repeats, which in my opinion serves to better balance the structures. The advantage of the Kunsbacka is some additional feeling of spontaneity, more contrast and transparency.

The liner notes by Keith Anderson are in genuine Naxos-style: compact yet informative. In a short space they tell the story of Haydn’s life and the context of creation of the four works, together with a somewhat dry musical analysis of the pieces.

Oleg Ledeniov

see also review by Michael Greenhalgh

Noble and natural.