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Haydn Trios: A Lesson in Musical Evolution

By Joan Reinthaler
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 23, 2009

Two contrasting, excellent performances of Haydn trios -- the first, a couple of Sundays ago by the Esterhazy Machine; the other, this past Friday by the Mendelssohn Piano Trio -- offer a vivid lesson in the evolution of performance practices in the 200 years since the composer's death.

The musicians of the Esterhazy Machine (the Esterhazy family was Haydn's patron in the late 18th century) play on period instruments or reproductions. These are generally softer than their modern counterparts. The sonorities they produce are transparent, and the narrower range of dynamics available encourages subtle shadings. Warmth is the byproduct of gut strings; vibrato is used sparingly; and, in this context, ornamentation takes on a major role in building emotional excitement.

For the Esterhazy Machine's program at the Renwick Gallery, artistic director Kenneth Slowik chose three trios for viola, cello and baryton and two for violin, cello and piano. (A baryton is a sort of tenor cello, with six strings that are bowed and nine strings behind the fingerboard that can be plucked and that vibrate sympathetically when the bowed strings are played. In the second set of trios, a fortepiano -- a lighter and more percussive-sounding early version of the piano -- was used.) Slowik, who is master of an astonishing number of instruments, played the baryton and fortepiano here. Steven Dann did double duty on the violin and viola and Myron Lutzke anchored the ensemble on the cello.

If evoking an aura of 18th-century sensibilities was an objective, the concert was wonderfully successful. A sense of intimacy kept the audience spellbound and absolutely quiet. Textures were transparent. Silences (one of Haydn's most effective tools for humor and anticipation) quivered with expectancy. The baryton trios, with their dark sonorities, spoke simply, almost naively, and the piano trios, which were more exhibitionistic for all the instruments, danced. There were moments, however, when cracks appeared in the ensemble -- when there were disagreements about ritards and when the rather thunky-sounding fortepiano contributed more percussiveness than tone.

The Mendelssohn Trio's concert at the Hungarian Embassy offered Haydn in 21st-century garb -- four piano trios, played with a fine mix of energy and restraint on the modern instruments to which we're accustomed. Pianist Ya-Ting Chang articulated nicely and never over-pedaled, but because delicacy is not the defining characteristic of the modern concert grand, the piano dominated, for better or for worse. Cellist Fiona Thompson, with a largely subsidiary role, nevertheless handled each phrase with close attention to shape and weight, and violinist Peter Sirotin played agilely if without much personality.

One piece overlapped the two programs, the D Minor Piano Trio, Hob. XV:23, which came across as two quite different works altogether. The Esterhazy Machine's version projected ornamentation and romantic exuberance most strongly. The Mendelssohn Trio's performance emphasized, in turn, portentousness, sophistication and playfulness. Both were delightful.

The Mendelssohn Trio is in residence with the D.C. Embassy Series that sponsored its concert.

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