Joseph Haydn: Piano Trios – Trio Wanderer – Harmonia Mundi

Trio Wanderer brings a superb presentation to five piano trios by Joseph Haydn—a welcome addition to the library!

Joseph Haydn: Piano Trios, Hob XV: 14, 18, 21, 26, 31. Trio Wanderer—Harmonia Mundi HMM902321—69:00, ****1/2:

This is my first survey of the Trio Wanderer (Vincent Coq, piano; Jean-Marc Phillips-Varjabédian, violin; and Raphaël Pidoux, cello). Their newness to me, however, betrays their prodigious career, recording the variable canon of trios for piano, violin, and cello: Discography  |  Trio Wanderer. This marks their second recording of trios by Haydn, the first appearing in 2001 (Harmonia Mundi HMG 501968).

To help situate these works, I turned to Charles Rosen’s The Classical Style (Norton, 1972) who devoted a chapter to Haydn’s trios, considering them Haydn’s third great collection of works, following his symphonies and string quartets.

They are not chamber music in the usual sense, but works for solo piano, solo violin, and accompanying cello. For the most part the cello serves only to double the piano’s bass, although in a very few places it is briefly independent.

Despite liking the pieces, he also says:

They may be splendid pieces, but they are unprogressive, backward in style, and should have been written differently.

And…

In any case, the Haydn trios are doomed. Only pianists will ever want to play them, and the modern piano recital is no place for them.

Well!

He goes on to place them in context of the time; that in general terms, piano trios were considered less serious music, with many having been written for serious amateurs. And that the cello part helped bring-out the weaker bass of the period piano. And, finally, that they include many passages for the piano that remind him of improvisational flourishes.

Considering Rosen’s remarks, it is difficult not to hear these pieces first as piano works. One immediate connection I make to the earlier baroque period are the pieces by Rameau en concert for harpsichord, violin and gamba. The earliest work on the recording, the Trio #14, is first and foremost a piano sonata accompanied by friends. In the second movement of the same trio, the violin and cello play together with the piano wedged into the middle of the texture, providing a moving rhythmic pulse. The movement helps us understand Trio Wanderer’s approach: performing on modern instruments, they play their parts sensitive to historical practice, honoring a balance between the parts; the violin never gets schmaltzy with vibrato, the piano touch provides separation between notes—not unlike what we might experience on an early piano.

The opening of the middle movement (Andante) of Trio #18 follows a similar guise, lending the melody at the start to the violin. The movement seems to be one written for the especial pleasure of the performers. Trio Wanderer, I think, respond. The finale of the same trio provides a challenge for the violinist and pianist to play the melody in tandem for parts. The performers never give us any whiff of sweat or toil. Their playing is confident and ideally suited to Haydn’s jovial theme.

Rosen notes that in his later trios, Haydn got more compositionally daring and interesting. In the opening movement (Allegro) from Trio #26, there is a larger, more formal structure at play. Haydn’s writing here sounds more similar here to some of his better-known quartets. Rhythmic curiosities and changes in character together make for richer music. Trio Wanderer responds by buying into the drama with great phrasing and dynamic shape. The finale, too, is interesting. Haydn starts the dance-y piece in the minor mode but resolves the phrases in the major. It brings some closure to the coupling of modes from his introduction of minor-moded phrases in the first movement.

The sound of the recording is sympathetic to the three instruments, bathing them, the piano more so, in a glowing reverb. I may be biased in my reading of Rosen, but I enjoyed the later trios over the earlier ones. The recital, organized by choosing trios written across time, helps us appreciate Haydn’s evolution in writing trios. In the end, I believe Trio Wanderer does a superb job at presenting, what Rosen says of Haydn’s trios, “his most imaginative and inspired conceptions.”

Warmly recommended.

—Sebastian Herrera

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