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The Baryton Sings Again

Baryton (W. F. Jaura, 1934) after Simon Schodler, 1782
(photo by José Vázquez)
After a profoundly beautiful concert of In nomine pieces for viol consort in January, also covered exclusively here at Ionarts, the Smithsonian Chamber Music Society offered another program of considerable historical interest on Sunday night. As you surely know, this year is the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn, and this concert of Haydn trios for the Esterházy court is only the latest tribute. The setting of the SCMS's normal venue, the Renwick Gallery, in fact recalls the neoclassical palace of Eszterháza in Hungary -- where Haydn was employed for most of his adult life -- if not in nearly as grand and Rococo a style. The Grand Salon would be a good approximation of a high-ceilinged palace camera di musica, too, especially if the carpet were removed, something that would liven up the acoustic considerably.

Prince Nikolaus Eszterházy, Haydn's music-loving employer, played a few instruments himself and most notoriously had a soft spot for a nutty old instrument called the baryton. It is similar to a viola da gamba, except that the baryton has a set of resonating strings on the underside of the neck that vibrate sympathetically just above the sound box. Because the back of the neck is open, the player can also pluck the sympathetic strings with his left thumb, if the harmony at that point in the score is compatible with the pitches of the open strings. The instrument was long out of fashion when Haydn was chastened by the Prince to write more music for it, then almost entirely forgotten in the 19th century, and one rarely gets the chance to hear it played live -- in fact, this is the first such concert in the history of Ionarts. The multi-talented Kenneth Slowik, artistic director of the SCMS series and curator of the Smithsonian instrument collection (a must-see Washington destination for any music lover), made it happen by playing a 2008 Henner Harders reproduction of a Stadlmann baryton (Vienna, 1732).

available at Amazon
Haydn, Baryton Trios (selection), Geringas Baryton Trio

available at Amazon
Haydn, Baryton Trios (complete), Esterházy Ensemble (recorded at Esterháza)
The configuration of the baryton trios Haydn wrote is also unusual, in that it combines the baryton with a viola and cello, which often likely placed Haydn, a violist, next to his princely employer on the baryton. The mixture of lower instruments creates a somber, earthy timbre, and the parts Haydn wrote, especially for the baryton, are often -- but certainly not always -- relatively easy to play (generally in three movements, often with only one true fast movement). Many writers over the years have extolled the beauty of Haydn's baryton trios and lamented that the scarcity of the instrument today means that much good music -- 126 baryton trios and several other works -- lies forgotten.

Other Reviews:

Joan Reinthaler, Haydn Trios: A Lesson in Musical Evolution (Washington Post, March 23)
It's all true: the three presented here (Hob. XI: 96, 113, and 126) were all memorable not only for the warm, resonant sound of the baryton (especially buzzing with overtones in the trios in D major and B minor, best for the tuning of the sympathetic strings) but just for being good music, especially the opening slow movements (113/1 and 96/1, Adagio and Largo, respectively) and the melancholy menuet of the B minor (96/3). The playing of the violist and cellist, Steven Dann and Myron Lutzke, respectively -- both on historical instruments -- had an occasionally scratchy or toneless sound but was generally good. In a way it was a shame to pair these trios with a second half of later piano trios, both from after the death of Nikolaus in 1790. With Dann switched to an Amati violin and Slowik to a mellow Thomas and Barbara Wolf fortepiano, the performance was still pleasing but seemed more ordinary than exotic by comparison. Three more of the baryton trios would have been preferable -- at the rate of six per concert, it would take only 21 concerts to perform them all.

One of the world's leading baryton players, David Geringas, will appear with his trio on the National Gallery of Art's Sunday concert series next month (April 26, 6:30 pm).

Adagio from Haydn's Trio in D Major (Hob. XI:113), with José Vázquez (baryton),
Lucia Krommer (cello), Christa Opriessnig (viola)

1 comment:

glebowski said...

Many thanks for this fascinating article.I have enjoyed exploring your links to this piece. The spread and depth of your arts coverage is exemplary.