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The notorious Haydn trio

I was first introduced to Haydn's Divertimento a Tre when my teacher - Aksel Strøm - performed it on a faculty recital at the youth orchestra festival where I was a student in the mid-eighties. As I was only a teenager, I didn't know exactly how impressive this performance was. Aksel joked around afterwards about how the piece covered a full four octaves (and if I remember correctly, there wasn't even one note missed..), but as he was in the habit of demonstrating even a full fifth higher in lessons - and as the performance had seemed quite effortless - I didn't make much of this little piece at the time.

A few years later I was studying horn full time in conservatory. My professor - Odd Ulleberg (who had been Aksel's teacher as well) - seemed to have the inside scoop on pretty much anything. He mentioned several times how this particular piece was one of the very few works in our repertoire that the legendary Dennis Brain would shy away from. I bought the material in a local music store. I was interested in building a comprehensive library - and then at the back of my mind, I had this youthful thought that I should one-up the great Mr. Brain and master the Divertimento a Tre. I have to mention that Mr. Ulleberg was quick to point out that Dennis Brain didn't have access to the same equipment that we had, and that he was most sympathetic to his decision to abstain from Haydn's trio without a descant horn.

I had bought a Paxman descant horn used in the mid-eighties. In fact, I played it exclusively for a few years when I was in my teens. I still own this horn, and it is a great instrument (you can see pictures on my "horns" page). When I started conservatory and regular lessons with Frøydis Ree Wekre, she made me realize that I needed to study the regular double horn. For several years the Paxman horn went back in the case and stayed there.

At the time that I finally got around to perform the Haydn trio, I was in the habit of only playing double horn - I had used the Paxman for a couple of Konzertstück performances - but even though I always remembered this line of wisdom from Odd Ulleberg: "No one is going to thank you for playing it on the double horn!" - I was a little stubborn, a little proud, and definitely a little reckless. My first four or five performances of the piece was done on my Rauch double horn. At least a couple of them were quite good, but man was it hard!

These performances, and the prospect of future ones, actually prompted me to invest in a triple horn by E. Schmid. The high e-flat horn is a perfect vehicle for clarity and ease in the high range. In addition, the fingerings are very comfortable for flat keys. I've used this horn for all subsequent performances of the Divertimento, and it has made my life a lot easier!

It is interesting to note that a piece like this - which was deemed "unplayable" by several of the great performers of the past - has now become standard repertoire. You will even hear it programmed on student recitals. It really is quite remarkable how the general access to information is raising the technical level of playing - special feats are becoming everyday occurrences... (At the same time it is important to keep in mind that this does not in any way diminish the achievements of past great artists - in fact; now more than ever do we need to listen and learn from the great masters who could affect our hearts - even without feeling the need to dazzle...)

Finally, I'd like to share some thoughts on interpretation. When I play a piece that pushes me to the limit technically, it feels as if interpretative choices are not really happening - that there simply is no room for such luxuries. However, interpretation is unavoidable: the way you approach your instrument is interpretation, and even if I never consciously considered a different tempo or another articulation for a certain passage, the result is no less of a choice. To me this piece is whimsical, virtuosic and fun - I never even thought of it as anything else. Yet, I have heard performances that seem to aim for a stately, dignified expression. In effect all of our "no-choice-in-the-matter" are choices...

When I first looked at the music for this piece, I had remembered Aksel Strøm's 4-octave comment. I was a little disappointed to see only three and a half. For a while I was wondering if my old teacher had been stretching the truth, but then I realized that he must have put a pedal-note in the little cadenza towards the end. I do the same in my cadenza: It is just so much cooler to play a four-octave piece!

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