Haydn: Baryton Divertimenti, Vol. 1 (CD review)

Trios Hob. XI: 35, 87, 97, 101, and 124. The Esterhazy Machine. Smithsonian FoM 36-811.

First things first: What is a baryton, and what the heck is an Esterhazy Machine?

A baryton, according to my Random House Dictionary, is "an 18th-century stringed instrument with six bowed strings and several additional strings that vibrate sympathetically." The disc booklet amplifies on that, saying that "Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father, described it as 'one of the most charming of instruments. Like the gamba, it has six or seven strings. It has, however, a very wide neck, the back of which is hollow and open and into which nine or ten brass and steel strings are inserted, which may be plucked by the thumb while the principal part is played with the bow on the gut strings.'"

The baryton was a favorite instrument of Hungarian Prince Nicolaus Esterhazy, a patron of composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and, as a result, among Haydn's prodigious output of 104 symphonies, 68 string quartets, numerous oratorios, masses, sonatas, concertos, operas, and songs, we find some 170 works for the baryton, 123 of them trios for baryton, viola, and cello like the ones recorded here. (The fact that the Smithsonian folks mark this release as "Volume 1" may indicate they intend to record even more such collections. They certainly have enough material.)

As for the Esterhazy Machine, it's the group name for three players of international renown in their own right: Kenneth Slowik, artistic director of the Smithsonian Chamber Society, soloist, conductor, and recording artist, on baryton; Steven Dann, principal violist of Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw and other orchestras, soloist, and recording artist, on viola; and Myron Lutzke, principal cellist of the Orchestra of St. Luke's, prominent Baroque and classical soloist, and recording artist, on violoncello. The group's name derives from a remark by Dutch cellist Anner Bylsma, who referred to the baryton as "that Esterhazy machine."

The five trios for baryton presented on this disc range from brief (about nine minutes) to less brief (about twenty-two minutes), generally in traditional three-movement arrangements, with one of them, the Trio in D major, Hob. XI: 97, in seven movements (written longer in honor of Prince Esterhazy's birthday). In common they exhibit a pleasant, relaxed tone, much of it sweet, pastoral, witty, and serene. The trios are exceptionally tranquil and totally delightful.

The three players, using period instruments (or in the case of the baryton, a facsimile), provide comfortable, gracious, refined interpretations of the music. As each man is a well-established artist individually, the question I had going in was how well they would perform as a group. Obviously, the answer is sensationally well. The three instruments emerge as one, with rich, luxuriant textures provided by the baryton, and the accompanists blending in seamlessly and effortlessly. The ensemble play as one, as though born to the music, which they never rush and never make less than enjoyable.

Recorded at Dekelboum Concert Hall of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland at College Park, in 2004, this 2010 Smithsonian FoM (Friends of Music) release sounds splendid. Like their other recordings, this Smithsonian issue provides enough hall resonance to give one the feeling of being in the room with the players, yet there is never so much reverberation that it obscures inner detail or transparency. These are immaculate aural presentations that never spread the ensemble out too widely but give them just enough distance left to right and front to back to produce an almost uncanny realism. The warm acoustic suits the mellow style of the music, the disc's audiophile quality a pleasure to the ears.


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa