Haydn: Piano Trios, Hob. XV:18, 19, 25 & 27

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: Analekta Fleur de lys
WORKS: Piano Trios, Hob. XV:18, 19, 25 & 27
PERFORMER: Gryphon Trio
CATALOGUE NO: FL 2 3104
In his seminal book The Classical Style, published nearly 30 years ago, Charles Rosen described Haydn’s Piano Trios as ‘doomed… only a pianist will ever want to play them’. It’s true that Haydn’s trios, even the masterly 14 written for London publishers towards the end of his life, give a very minor role to the cello, and even the violinist’s brilliant moments are often doubled by the piano. But Rosen’s gloomy prognosis has been proved wrong, and there are now plenty of recordings of these wonderful late masterpieces. This is thanks partly to the rise of period-instrument trios, for which Haydn’s works are the absolute core repertoire. They have a natural advantage as the lighter, penetrating fortepiano sound makes a better balance with the thinner sound of the period violin. Added to this, the grainy sonority of a period trio, delicately clear and yet mysteriously veiled, is endlessly fascinating.

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Of the three ‘authentic’ versions available, the London Fortepiano Trio’s is the least memorable. The Sony recordings with Robert Levin at the fortepiano and those on Harmonia Mundi with Patrick Cohen are both much more strongly characterised and bring out the rhapsodic, almost improvised feel of these late works. Modern trios are now in something of a quandary; they have to capture the natural balance of the period trios without sounding as if they’re holding back. Unfortunately the Gryphon Trio fails to bring this off. It plays with marvellous delicacy and precision, but never with any weight or fire, and the violinist’s unvaryingly small, tight vibrato does get a little wearing on the ear. It makes Haydn’s trios sound as if they’re made from porcelain, which does these vigorous works a disservice. Of the other modern-instrument recordings the Beaux Arts Trio’s complete set, made in the Seventies, has many wonderful moments, but on balance I prefer the compellingly alert and incisive recordings led by András Schiff on Decca. Ivan Hewett