Joseph Haydn died in 1809 and before this year of commemorations slips away, I want to cast my vote for the all-time best recording of his music. A daunting, or perhaps, silly given idea, given the staggering possibilities to choose from. My choice is not of one of the great oratorios of his last years, nor one of the London Symphonies, which solidified his Europe-wide fame. I do not turn to the genre Haydn virtually invented, the string quartet, with its rich history of recorded interpretations, though the Quatuor Mosaiques CD featuring the “Lark” is one of the most beautiful discs I own.
Instead, I rejoice in an instrument parked at the end of a weedy drive off of an out-of-the-way cul-de-sac. Here leaning against the side of an empty garage are the two volumes of Baryton Trios played by John Hsu (baryton), David Miller (viola) and Fortunato Arico (cello) recorded some twenty years ago.
Haydn’s mind-boggling productivity yielded nearly two hundred works for this unlikely instrument, the baryton. Slightly larger than a cello, the baryton is a combination of the harp and viola di gamba, a bowed-string instrument with six or seven strings and frets. The harp strings are accessible through an opening in the neck, which is thicker and broader than that of the cello, and plucked with the thumb of the left hand. When not engaged these they resonant sympathetically with the bowed strings, and this gives the baryton its unique richness, particularly on ringing final chords. The thumb of the left hand must nimbly strike the harp-strings while the other four fingers are busying stop the frets: it is like playing two instruments at once, with the added difficulty that the player cannot see the strings behind the neck. One must trust the physical memory: the mind’s eye must direct the thumb to the correct string at the right time.
Already declining steeply in popularity during Haydn’s lifetime, this polymorphous instrument suffered devastating neglect under the clinical taxonomies of music formed in the 19th-century when the idea of the “classical style ” was invented and applied retroactively to the music of Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven.
John Hsu, one of the great musicians of the 20th-century, still active as a conductor as he approaches his eightieth year, pulled the instrument from its historical dead-end. Born in Shantou, China in 1931, Hsu studied the cello with Viennese émigrés who had fled Hitler and ended up in Shanghai. Trained in Asia in the highly expressive tradition of central European Romanticism, Hsu emigrated to the United States in 1949, the year of the Chinese Revolution. He brought with him a gorgeous woven textile from his hometown, where Scotch missionaries and weavers had enriched the indigenous textile traditions. Landing in Tacoma, Washington, Hsu sold the shawl and used the money to go to Carroll College and then went on to New England Conservatory, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1971. Some years ago, he returned to Tacoma in search of the shawl, but could not pick up the trail.
Through his own initiative, the cellist Hsu transformed himself beginning in the early 1960s into a pioneer of the viola di gamba. After mastering the instrument he played it all over the world in leading concert venues and on a host of award-winning recordings. Hsu became expert in the great viol music of the French grand siècle, for which he was made a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by France in 2001. I was fortunate enough to hear Hsu’s last public performance on the gamba in Bach’s St. John Passion in 1998. Hsu played the solo gamba part in the Passion’s decisive aria “Es ist vollgebracht” (It is finished), rendering it with a devastating, unforgettable expressivity. Hsu never treated the old instruments he played like antiques or fusty treasures, but as living vessels that if anything could supersede the communicative possibilities of “modern” instruments. The John Passion solo was a fitting and unforgettable finale for a great career.
While establishing himself as the leading gambist of his generation, Hsu remained devoted to the music of Haydn as a cellist. Discovering the vast stores of Haydn baryton trios led him to this extravagant cousin of the gamba.
In 1760, Haydn became Vice-Kapellmeister (assistant director of music) for Prince Anton Esterházy, the head of one of the Austro-Hungarian empire’s most powerful families. Two years later the Prince died and was succeeded by his younger brother Paul Anton. In 1757 Prince Nikolaus had been the great hero in a major encounter of the Seven Years’ War. At the Battle of Kolin his courageous actions bolstering the Austrian cavalry led to Frederick the Great’s first defeat of the war. Like the Prussian King, the future Prince Nikolaus Esterházy was also an avid amateur musician: how typical and terrible it was that these two men so capable of accomplished music in the drawing room or concert hall could meet on a field on which nearly half of the Prussians’ 32,000-strong army would die.
Before going into battle, Frederick played the flute, the most portable of instruments, and the polished superior to the fifes which organized his advancing columns: where the that high-pitched instrument was shrill and piercing, the flute of Frederick’s era was soft and infinitely nuanced. Nikolas Esterházy played the baryton, which was probably too big and unwieldy to take on the campaign, though given this musician/warrior’s enormous wealth—he was said to be richer than the Austrian Emperor himself—lugging the instrument along was by no means out of the question. The plaintive sound of the baryton—both a solo vehicle, but more frequently a member of small ensembles—would have soothed the ears and spirit after a day of roaring cannon and musket and tens of thousands of deaths. War and music have always been colleagues, either on the field or as a mode of escape and commemoration. Through the legacy Haydn’s music, the warrior Nikolaus goes down as the most famous player of the distinctly unwarlike baryton.
The Prince reprimanded Haydn in 1765, the year he was elevated to director of the princely establishment musical, for not composing enough for his employer’s favorite instrument. Haydn’s production duly increased. Much of his labors working for the Esterhazy Princes was administrative, but once forced to write music for the baryton he did not treat this as bureaucratic paper-pushing: when it came to composing the urge to create art overrode any disgruntlement. In their dozens the trios flowed from Haydn’s pen.
There was a knowledgeable and committed player to please, one who paid the composer’s salary. One might think that servitude would have yielded stale, even spiteful, music. If Haydn were going to do it he would do it right: the irrepressible muse made the lackey sing.
Volume one of the Hsu’s baryton discs begins with Trio no. 97 in D major written for the Prince’s birthday in 1771. The piece’s seven movements take sixteen minutes to play and range over a broad range of affects and techniques: a perfect musical digestif after the sumptuous birthday banquet. Like so many of the trios, this one begins with a yearning Adagio: a slow tempo that allowed the prince to warm up and give musical shape to his feelings without the perils of high speed figuration. In musical matters, men of power like first to show themselves to be me men of feeling.
A more festive, even boisterous, Allegro follows. The Prince could get around his instrument too; there was more to him than feigned melancholy. Decorous dances follow: two minuets and polonaise, easy to play, but characterful—medals jangling, boots scuffing along the parquet, the swoosh of petticoats, a polish plume. A fleeting turn to minor pathos is made with yet another Adagio. At cadences the harp strings come in, sounding very much like a harpsichord accompaniment giving gentle emphasis to moments of rhetorical closure. Haydn stages the musical discourse so that the prince is seen to decide when things should end. His is the final word, even when speaking along with his partners in music-making. On his birthday, the Prince would be indulged and admired for his command of sentiment by all required to do so. In this sense, Haydn’s job was to show his employer as a master of emotion and its expression, and therefore human like even the lowliest tenants of the vast agrarian holdings that made up his wealth. Even though all people felt, only a few knew how to show it in the proper and uplifting way. Music was the most prized forum for sublimation, and Haydn the skilful therapist for extracting these moderated effusions from his master.
The trio ends with a Presto fugue, which pleases the erudite pretensions of the patron: there are antique turns and fleet scales approaching real virtuosity. The birthday music performed by the birthday boy himself ends with buoyant wit. Above his fellow players in worldly station, the Prince is also among them. The way Haydn uses the instrument is all about clever and varied colloquy and communal music making: enthusiastic utterances, spirited rejoinders, assuaging asides, supportive gestures.
Throughout both volumes of the recording, Hsu’s group converses with a joint familiarity that encounters each turn in the music with delight and amusement, and always with impeccable precision. The ensemble breathes together, the members conversing with a real sense of shared purpose. There is something democratic and shared, egalitarian beneath the hierarchical context that produced this music: in the end this egalitarian ethos is Haydn’s revenge. That a burden like this should yield such riches is, at least for us, a pleasant paradox.
John Hsu imbues the baryton with a rare voice that the instrument, for all its peculiar possibility, alone does not supply: his is the intangible expressive power of a real, and very rare, kind of musician. For Hsu the brilliant passagework, the pleading moments of introspection, the lithe plucking all sounds is done with a kind of elegance and graciousness, that welcomes the listener in. One feels not so much to be eavesdropping on a brilliant and beautiful conversation, but to be participating in it. Through hard work, curiosity, scholarly dedication, and real talent, the boy from China made himself a true chevalier, one of the great aristocrats of music. Nowhere is this bearing to be heard more compellingly in concert with the members of his in this timeless recording of Haydn doing his best job by doing his best.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org