Classical Album of the Week: Take a Trip Back in Time to an Early 1800s Viennese Salon

Sep 30, 2020

September 28, 2020. The Philadelphia-based period instrument ensemble Night Music was formed to play classical works from the post-Baroque era. The ensemble's co-directors Steven Zohn and Heather Miller Lardin spoke with WRTI's Susan Lewis on Zoom about the fun of making their engaging debut album, Music for a Viennese Salon, and giving it context with an imaginative piece of historical fiction.

Zohn, who plays classical flute on the recording, has written a story that appears in the album's liner notes about the way this music might have been presented to guests at an early 19th-century salon. “We got the idea that this could be like a re-creation of a salon performance, let’s say in Vienna, in 1801. The people are real; the circumstances are made up.”

As the story begins, we join Caroline Pichler, a young poet and novelist running late to a salon hosted by baroness Franziska ‘Fanny’ von Arnstein. These salons, hosted mostly by women, provided places for people to gather for games, literary discussions, and music played by some of the leading musicians of the time.

The album’s program is bookended by Haydn’s "Surprise Symphony," orchestrated for flute and strings (with the sudden chord in the second movement still a delightful surprise) and a quintet by lesser-known composer Joseph Martin Kraus, with the same orchestration.    

Musicians from Night Music ensemble.
Credit Rebecca Oehlers

Pairing these two works highlights the relationship between the forms. “It makes you think about how an orchestral piece [the Haydn] can seem like a chamber piece,” says Zohn, “and Kraus writes his piece in orchestral ways; sometimes the flute comes in as if it’s a wind section, and then it switches roles and becomes like a concerto soloist. At other times, it just becomes part of the ensemble ... the line between chamber music and orchestral music can be very fine in certain pieces.”

In the middle is a duo by Carl Ditters Von Dittersdorf for viola and violone. The violone, says Lardin, is “tuned a little higher than most double basses are tuned today ... It was meant to have a very bright sound, and was a very popular instrument in the late 18th and very early 19th century.” In this piece, she says, ‘the viola player has the brunt of the work. It’s very demanding, and our violist, Daniel Elyar, did a crackerjack job of it. There’s a lot of double stops; there’s a beautiful melody in the adagio, and some fireworks in the final movement.”

Track List:

JOSEPH MARTIN KRAUS (1756–1792): Quintet in D for flute and strings

CARL DITTERS VON DITTERSDORF (1739–1799): Duetto in E flat Kr. 219 fr viola & violone

JOSEPH HAYDN (1732–1809):  Symphony No.94 in G,  ‘Surprise' arr. Johann Peter Salomon for flute and strings

The musicians of Night Music playing on Music for a Viennese Salon: Steven Zohn (eight-keyed flute); Rebecca Harris (violin); Marika Holmqvist (violin); Daniel Elyar (viola); Rebecca Humphrey Diederich (cello); Heather Miller Lardin (violone)

The idea of imagining the music as it would have been played in a salon, says co-director Lardin, is in keeping with the way the ensemble likes to present performances. “We like to play in smaller spaces, such as the Powell House, in Old City. The audience is really close to you, and there’s often people you know. It’s very intimate and delightful.” 

Here’s a video of Night Music playing its arrangement of Mozart’s concert aria “Per questa bella mano,” written originally for bass and double bass withe orchestra. The performance took place in April 2018 in the Powell House ballroom as part of PhilaLandmarks Early Music Series.

Performers on the video include Graham Bier (bass-bariton), Heather Miller Lardin (Viennese double bass), Steven Zohn (flute), Geoffrey Burgess (oboe), Rebecca Harris and Marika Holmqvist (violins), Margaret Humphrey (viola), and Rebecca Humphrey Diederich (cello).