Classical CD Reviews

New classical music releases reviewed in detail by Gavin Dixon

Thursday, 6 June 2019


Maddalena Del Gobbo (baryton, vdg); Robert Bauerstatter (va); David Pennetzdorfer (vcl); Ewald Donhoffer (hpd) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 481 8034 (73:39)

HAYDN Trios for Baryton, Viola, and Cello: in D, Hob. XI:113; in D, Hob. XI:27; in D, Hob. XI:97. 
LIDL Divertimento in G for Baryton, Viola, and Cello. HAMMER Viola da Gamba Sonata No. 1 in A. 
A. TOMASINI Trio in C for Baryton, Viola, and Cello

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This CD charts a significant but little-documented episode in the history of Western music, the decade-long obsession of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy for the baryton. The instrument is a Baroque-era elaboration of the viola da gamba, similar in shape and with seven gut playing strings, which are bowed and stopped at frets. But the baryton also has 10 sympathetic strings, which run under the fingerboard. A hole in the back of the neck allows the player to pluck these strings with the thumb of the left hand, and in the Baroque era, music for baryton often consisted of a bowed melody line accompanied by a plucked thorough bass.
But all of this was rapidly becoming history by the time Prince Nikolaus was introduced to the instrument in the mid-1760s. The excellent liner notes for this release, written and eloquently translated from German by Christoph Prendl, tell the story of the instrument at the Esterházy court: Travelling baryton virtuosos were still to be found in the courts of Europe, and one, Carl Franz, was also the first horn player in the Esterházy orchestra. Prince Nikolaus began playing the instrument, and commissioned many works for his own performance, most notably, but not exclusively, from Joseph Haydn. Haydn composed 163 pieces for baryton, including solo works, concertos, cantatas, and trios. Of these, only the trios survive (mostly, as here, for baryton, viola, and cello), but in substantial quantity; all 126 of Haydn’s baryton trios collected together in bound volumes at the Prince’s request.
Haydn learned to play the instrument himself, practicing secretly at night in order to master the instrument’s eccentric demands. From a compositional point of view, the most pressing of these was to find enough variety. The instrument’s sympathetic strings are tuned to a scale of D Major, limiting the instrument to that and neighboring keys. All three Haydn trios here are in D Major, though we are told that he did venture as far as C Major, F Major, A Minor, and B Minor, but didn’t employ the plucked sympathetic strings for works in these keys.
By contrast, the three Haydn trios here appear to have been chosen to demonstrate Haydn’s inventive use of the sympathetic strings. The combination of baryton, viola, and cello is one of a Baroque solo instrument accompanied by more modern, Classical-era descendants, and in the Minuetto of  Trio No. 97, Haydn makes that contrast explicit by giving the melody to the viola, accompanied, in the Baroque manner, by the baryton’s plucked bass line. In the Adagio of Trio No. 113, by contrast, the baryton’s bowed melody is accompanied both by its own plucked sympathetic strings and by the other two instruments also playing pizzicato.
Despite the unusual repertoire and instrumentarium, this CD is an artist-focused release, as is the modus operandi of DG.  The artist in question is the Italian but Vienna-based viola da gambist Maddalena Del Gobbo. This is her second release on DG, the first an viola da gamba album (48145232) featuring works dedicated to another aristocratic player, Princess Anne Henriette of France, daughter of Louis XV. That might explain why there is so little information about Del Gobbo in the literature for this release, which focuses almost exclusively on the repertoire. She is well photographed though, giving multiple opportunities to also picture the baryton itself, an ornately decorated instrument with an elegantly contoured body and a head carved onto the scroll. The recording location gets due mention and illustration too, the Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Castle in Eisenstadt, a fitting venue if ever there was one.
Del Gobbo draws a warm tone from the baryton, rich, although not as resonant as one might expect given the sympathetic strings, and with a satisfyingly husky burr from the gut playing strings. The resonant acoustic adds to the warmth, but without obscuring the detail—some audible breathing suggests close-up miking, but the instrumental tone never suffers. Haydn’s compositional skill is evident in his ability to make this reticent instrument, its part written for an amateur, the focus of attention, even when accompanied by two more modern and robust counterparts. Violist Robert Bauerstatter and cellist David Pennetzdorfer prove amenable and graceful partners, and what a surprise to hear Haydn passing the melody so often to the viola, something all but unknown in the string quartets!
The program is filled out with works by three baryton virtuosi-cum-composers, Andreas Lidl (unkown–c. 1789), Franz Xaver Hammer (1741–1817), and Aloisio Luigi Tomasini (1741–1808), all associated with the Esterházy court. The Hammer work is actually a sonata for standard viola da gamba, accompanied here on a very modest-sounding harpsichord by Ewald Donhoffer. The Lidl and Tomasini works are both trios for baryton, viola, and cello. Both works are attractive enough, although in a conventional Classical-era style, the Tommasini in particular very generic. Neither composer employs the plucked strings here, surprisingly, given that we are told Lidl was master of this technique. Fortunately, the players afford just as much interpretive conviction to these lesser composers as they do to Haydn, performing their outer movements with vibrant energy, and the middle movements with elegant lyricism.
It is Haydn who ends the program, and with a typically unexpected joke. The Trio 97 was written for Prince Nikolaus’s birthday, occasioning an unusual coda from the composer. Most of the trios are in three movements, and this one is too, but Haydn then adds four very short additions, a Polonaise, Adagio, Menuet, and fugal Finale, each less than two minutes long. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, that on a disc dedicated to an unusual instrument and its aristocratic patron, it is Haydn, as so often, who gets the last laugh.

This review appears in Fanfare magazine issue 43:1.

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