on 22 December 2011
The two compilations contain eight works from Hob. XV, Nos. 24 to 31 inclusive. The numbering within Hoboken's XV grouping is not necessarily chronological so that, for example, there is some argument as to the order of composition within this set, mainly to do with No.30 & No.31. That they are all late works within this final eruption of trio composition towards the end of Haydn's prolific career is not in question.
The point has been well made by Charles Rosen (The Classical Period Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Faber 1971, page 351) and others that the keyboard trios are among the most neglected group of works from the composer's output. It is sometimes assumed, because these pieces were labelled by Haydn himself as sonatas for piano with violin and cello accompaniment, that they do not compare favourably with the trios of Mozart and Beethoven. Nothing could be further from the truth. (Perhaps a new nomenclature should have been found for these works? The late H.C. Robbins Landon's frequent use of the phrase "a kind of" might suggest something of the sort? See below.)
In his The Piano Trio (O.U.P. 1990, pages 18-19) Basil Smallman writes: "Mozart's system, when expanded by Beethoven, became the accepted ideal for virtually all later trio composition. But Haydn also, by example of his masterful piano writing and structural inventiveness, exerted a profound influence on the future of the genre, aspects of his style reappearing transformed in the work of trio composers of the succeeding generation." And again from Rosen: ". . . but with the exception of the great E major and B flat Trios, all of Mozart's are thinner in style and less interesting than the best dozen or sixteen of Haydn's."
Indeed, I would contend that the fifteen or so Haydn trios written between the years 1789 to 1795 exhibit an astonishing variety of invention unmatched in any other genre of the composer's output. The piano writing in many cases ranges far beyond anything Haydn achieved for the solo instrument, informing composers of the "succeeding generation" and beyond in both style and technique.
I should like to quote Rosen again in respect of the C minor Trio No.13. Referring to the opening variations from this two movement work: "It is one of the finest examples of Haydn's ability to create an emotion that was completely his own and that no other composer, not even Mozart, could duplicate--a feeling of ecstasy that is completely unsensual, almost amiable." And from the same work, bars 179-181 of the finale--pure Haydn!
With all this in mind one often senses a lack of adventure when groups come to record the Haydn Trios--after all, they have only to step back a few paces from "Gypsy Rondo et al" to confront some of the finest of Haydn, as in the D minor No.23 and E flat No.22.
The eight works under review exhibit no less a wide diversity of style from the "Mozartian" E flat major No.30 (first movement) via the Beethovenian C major No.27, the Schubertian E flat minor No.31 (finale) to the almost outlandish synthesis of Baroque and late-classical in the E major No.28.
The Florestan perform on modern instruments and so may be compared with other recordings by leading exponents using similar instruments, including the Beaux Arts Trio and the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt. The two just mentioned vie well with Florestan and all have their own subtle approach to interpreting these masterpieces. (The point to be noted in respect of these late keyboard trios is the influence upon Haydn of the development in piano manufacture taking place about the time of the composer's two visits to London, 1791 to 1795. This is extensively documented by the late Robbins Landon in the third volume Haydn Chronicle and Works--Haydn in England 1791 - 1795.)
The two CD sets follow the chronology from Hoboken XV commencing with the D major, No.24, the first of the three trios dedicated to Rebecca Schroeter. This work includes a long first movement (there are repeats of both exposition and development/recapitulation) followed by two very short movements, the third of which (Allegro, ma dolce) peters out almost as if Haydn had lost interest. The first movement contains a number of examples of the pause or fermata (a favourite device with Haydn) immediately prior to which, on this recording, the pianist adds effective decoration.
The famous G major (No.25) has earned its popularity from the finale familiarly referred to as the "Gypsy Rondo". But Haydn had already achieved something similar in style with the finale of the A major No.18. Of course the reasons behind the Gypsy Rondo's popularity are not difficult to fathom, yet there are equally fine, even greater (word used advisedly) works in this late setting, notably the one in the unusual key of E major, No.28.
As one who came to the trios first as a pianist using modern instruments, advancing (in my opinion) by degrees to the fortepiano, the Florestan ensemble sound better integrated to these works in some instances than the other two groups just mentioned. (It is interesting to note that in 2006, when I reviewed the first collection of Trios by the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt, I pointed to that ensemble's frequent use of rubato as something more akin to performances on period instruments. And now, on comparing this group with Florestan in No.31, I have to admit to finding the former more pedestrian, despite their performance occupying less time by the clock.)
The two Trios No.25 and No.26 are given enjoyable performances with due regard to their contrasting features. In general the group take the trios at a lively pace, no more so than in a highly energetic rendering of the C major, No. 27.
From the two sets, the E major No.28 impressed me most of all not least for honouring the exposition repeat. This is one of those masterpieces that have slipped past the pundit's ear, but for the connoisseur of Haydn this is surely one of his most innovative creations?
I have some slight quibbles with Florestan in relation to dynamics. If anything they err on the side of "ff" rather than "f" and "p" rather than "pp"; and, in places, "sfz" where I would be content with "f". Even if one had access to Urtext editions, let alone the original scores, we might enter into endless debate on interpretation when using modern instruments. For example, I could point to instances in the two E flat works No.29 and No.30 where to my ear the music becomes a little uneven. By this I mean dynamic contrast that appears ill fitted to a particular passage. However, this is purely a matter of personal taste; the musicianship and execution are of the highest order.
It is to be hoped that listeners to these recordings will be encouraged to explore some at least of the other mature Haydn Trios (go to the Beaux Arts for the complete trios). They will not be disappointed: look particularly at the E flat major No.10, the E minor No.12, the C minor No.13 (take the Haydn Trio Eisenstadt for a beautiful performance of this work) and the E flat major No.22. A veritable feast awaits you.
We should also mention the excellent accompanying notes written by Robert Philip.
Taken from a review for the Haydn Society of Great Britain December 2011