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Think you know anything about Haydn’s Piano Trios? Try this on for size.

Much of Haydn’s chamber music, aside from the string quartets, gets unfairly ignored; indeed, when comparing the piano trios of the Esterhazy master to those of Mozart it is commonplace to assume that the Salzburg boy had a one-up in all departments. But hearing the music on this disc brings those assumptions into question, for though Haydn was much more prolific in the piano trio department than Mozart, and turned in 45 trio works that he still named “sonatas”, his gems in the genre are the equal of anything Mozart wrote. While it is true that the earlier ones seem no more than string-accompanied piano pieces, the later works, especially those from 1984 on, are generally brilliant, and some simply spectacular.

Mozart may have wonderful ideas, able to produce seeds of inventive melody that lend themselves to easy development, and Haydn has this ability as well, though not as prolifically as Mozart. But Haydn also has an ingenious talent for making bricks without straw, if the biblical analogy is appropriate; some of his ideas seem less than inventive until he takes them through the ringer and ends up persuading us that they are more worthwhile than we know they really are, simply by the genius of their manipulation. The three late trios here, late but from different periods within the late framework, all have smatterings of “how does he do this?”, and the sheer invention has one mesmerized from start to finish. If you think Haydn’s trios are something substandard, you owe it to yourself to hear this disc.

Haydn was blessed with perhaps the finest horn players in all of Europe, and when he left Esterhazy’s service he never wrote such horn music again. Both the Quintet and the Trio (Divertimento) contain amazing music that tax the horn players to the last degree—how they did this on natural horn is as phenomenal today as it must have been then, even more so since most players move from valved horn to natural when entering the period instrument realm. And this music is as catchy as you could ever want.

As mentioned, this music is done on period instruments, though it is only relatively of late that the wonderful Abegg Trio, playing since 1976, moved into this realm, and it is not one they necessarily live in all the time. But their credentials are sterling and their playing all one could ask for, energetic, enthusiastic, and musically impeccable. Tacet gives them their typically diamond-sharp sound in a recording of great clarity and balance.

Steven Ritter

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