Music Notes: Haydn’s Baryton Trios

Haydn wrote scads of works for the baryton, a stringed instrument, similar to the viola da gamba, but with sympathetic strings which either resonate as the main strings are played, or are plucked with the thumb. The reason for this number of compositions was because Haydn’s patron, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, played the baryton. The majority of these works – 126 of them – are trios, with baryton, cello and viola. The lack of a high instrument – a violin – gives them an interesting feel. They sound a bit like viol consort music, because the combination of the cello and baryton give a strong bass sound.

This set of the Complete Baryton Trios contains all 126 baryton trios, on 17 discs, and another 4 discs of octets, quintets, and variants. These works are fairly simple. Prince Esterházy was clearly not a virtuoso. These works make few demands on the performers, yet they have an attractive, peaceful sound. As with much of Hadyn’s music, there is a feeling of joy and happiness in these works. None are very long – movements are just a few minutes each – and the melodic development is fairly basic.

This music is nothing like Haydn’s string quartets (I especially like the complete set by the Angeles String Quartet), yet have the charm of simple, enjoyable music. Is it worth buying a 21-disc set of these works, even at a budget price? Probably not. I find this is nice music to put on in the background when I’m reading or working, attractive music to set a comfortable ambience when having dinner, or something to just relax to. Unfortunately, there are very few recordings of these works (see this Amazon search), so if you’re interested, the best way is to either get this box set, or choose from the few single discs available.

Another, more attractive option, is to get Brilliant Classics’ Complete Haydn Edition, which, on 150 discs, contains all of the baryton trios, all the symphonies, all but two discs of the string quartets, all the piano sonatas, the excellent piano trios, and many other works by Haydn. This set is a mixed bag, but for the essential works – the symphonies, piano sonatas and piano trios – it’s worth getting. Toss in the baryton trios, which you’ve probably never heard, and you get a nice package.