Injecting fire into Joseph Haydn’s concertos

What a beautiful instrument! © Charles Thibo

There are keyboards and keyboards. Baroque composer would think of the harpsichord and mention in the piece’s name that the piece is meant for violin for instance and basso continuo. The basso part would be played on the harpsichord. Joseph Haydn would write a keyboard concerto and think of still using the harpsichord or the newly invented fortepiano, a harpsichord that can play loud (forte) and soft (piano) sounds. Today one would play it on the modern piano unless… unless Viviane Chassot were around. She is a Swiss musician with a penchant for experiments and she plays Haydn’s keyboard parts on the accordion while the Kammerorchester Basel plays the tutti parts.

An outstanding experiment

The accordion. What a beautiful instrument! And I mean both its sound and the lacquered body with the shiny knobs. Combined with a chamber orchestra the accordion injects a touch of modernity and a lot of emotional fire into Haydn’s keyboard concertos. And let me tell you, the result of Mrs. Chassot’s experiment is outstanding; Haydn would have been fascinated had he known anything of the wide tonal range and the very specific sound of this instrument. However the accordion was invented only around 1822 while Haydn died in 1809.

I have grown very, very fond of Mrs. Chassot’s recording as she plays Haydn’s pieces with such a freshness and joy that one is tempted to believe Haydn did write his concertos for this very special keyboard instrument. Of course I hear the purists howling about playing Haydn on such a “vulgar” instrument, but I believe many in today’s audiences have a very narrow-minded idea of how a certain piece must sound. The more I learn about composers from the Baroque era onward, the more convinced that those composers themselves were compelled to a high degree of flexibility to find a compromise between their patron’s wishes and the means at their disposal. One piece was often arranged for different types of orchestras and, mind you, Johann Sebastian Bach did not have a piano to perform the “Well-tempered Clavier”.

Rameau on the accordion!

Mrs. Chassot perfectly knows what she is doing as she has devoted a lot of time and energy to this type of experiment. Before the release of this recording in March 2017 she  had already recorded some of Rameau’s harpsichord pieces as well as Some of Haydn’s piano sonatas performed on the accordion. I am eager to hear this pieces too and see how Baroque plays out on the accodion.

For the time being however we will explore Haydn’s Keyboard Concertos. We know of 10 perhaps 11 such concertos. Mrs. Chassot focuses on nos. 3, 4, 7 and 11 written by Haydn in D, G and F major between 1767 and 1780 while he stayed in Eisenstadt at the estate of the Esterhazy family. My absolute favourite is Keyboard Concerto in D major, Hob. XVIII:11.

“The appeal lies in hearing familiar music in a new and different light”, the accordionist explains. “People intuitively associate the sound of the accordion with musettes, tangos and folk music, with the result that Haydn’s music is now heard as part of an unusual sound picture. First and foremost, however, I want to convey the message of this music, and my means of doing so – possibly fortuitously – is the accordion. My recording is intended to delight the listeners.”

She does delight me, no doubt.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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