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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonatas Vol. 1
CD 1: No. 50 in C major, Hob XVI:50 [15:22]; No. 40 in G major, Hob XVI:40 [9:20]; No. 46 in A flat major, Hob XVI:46 [20:26]; No. 41 in B flat major, Hob XVI:41 [9:49]; No. 52 in E flat major, Hob XVI:52 [20:11]
CD 2: No. 23 in F major, Hob XVI:23 [16:45]; No. 43 in A flat major, Hob XVI:43 [14:23]; No. 24 in D major, Hob XVI:24 [12:01]; No. 32 in B minor, Hob XVI:32 [13:50]; No. 37 in D major, Hob XVI:37 [11:38]
Marc-André Hamelin (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 13-15 December 2005. DDD 2 CDs for price of 1
HYPERION CDA67554 [75:07 + 69:24]

 

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“I was cut off from the world; there was no-one within my vicinity
to make me unsure of myself or to persecute me; and so I had to become original.” (Griesinger)

This is perhaps the best known quote about Haydn, and that fame is apposite since these words illuminate so well Haydn’s approach to composition.

Being a salaried employee his life in service involved a great deal of routine. It also involved submitting to the demands, not to say whims, of his employer. It’s doubtful for instance whether Haydn would ever have composed work for the baryton if Prince Nikolaus had not been a keen exponent. Some have argued that he probably wouldn’t have essayed opera if Nikolaus hadn’t added an opera house to his palace at Esterhaza. This is a view supported by the allegedly professional but “uninspired” results he achieved, at least compared to his symphonies or quartets - albeit a judgement which is gradually being modified by a gentle stream of productions and recordings.

Given its limited recital exposure, I suppose some might make similar accusations about Haydn’s keyboard music. Even though he admitted having only a modest prowess at the instrument, he began virtually every day by trying out ideas at the keyboard, which from the 1780s was a fortepiano. Moreover as Richard Wigmore points out in his excellent notes, Haydn thought enough of the genre to compose a substantial corpus of 60-odd sonatas, which traversed almost his entire composing life.

Although these were initially somewhat lightweight and based upon the severely classical models of musicians like Galuppi and Wagenseil, they soon developed through the influence of C.P.E. Bach and various popular idioms into the “magnificent, often prophetic works written for public performance in London”.

Whilst the body of sonatas by his great friend and contemporary Mozart is somewhat smaller, both have suffered something of the same neglect. As teaching material they feature frequently, but in terms of outings on the recital platform they tend to be limited to a select few. Complete cycles of both are no longer a rarity, but with the greatest respect to the artists involved, those of the Haydn sonatas have not featured the involvement of really front-rank pianists – pianists who could turn heads, and influence minds.

So to receive a set of ten sonatas from an exponent of the calibre and stature of Marc-André Hamelin is most welcome. Hamelin has enjoyed a most fruitful association with Hyperion over the years, although I guess in the public consciousness he is most readily associated with the extreme, wrist-breaking repertoire of the 19th century romantic virtuosos. It’s therefore a double pleasure to have him in works where dexterity, albeit more understated, is nevertheless an important asset.

For the purposes of review I decided against considering the current issue in isolation, and therefore drew down from the shelves the three complete cycles in my own collection: John McCabe (Decca London 443 785-2 – 12 CDs), Carmen Piazzini (Arte Nova 74321 59202 2 – 9 CDs) and Christine Schornsheim (Capriccio 49 404 14CDs). McCabe and Piazzini are more strictly a comparison for Hamelin as they use a modern piano, whilst Schornsheim uses several different historic keyboards. I would have been very interested in adding Ronald Brautigam’s survey on fortepiano to the mix, but sadly I only have the set of early sonatas (1-20 BIS CD 1293/1294), none of which feature in Hamelin’s survey.

One final clarification however is necessary before proceeding. Despite attempts dating back to 1800 when Christoph Hartel (of Breitkopf and Härtel) produced a catalogue of Haydn’s sonatas, the ordering of these works still poses problems to the present day. Therefore it was no great surprise to find that cross-referencing the performances between these discs was not a straightforward task.

Broadly the three comparison sets agree on numbering and Hoboken catalogue numbers, whilst the Hyperion differs. So we find, for example, that on Hamelin’s disc (shortened hereafter to H) Sonata no. 50 becomes ...... no. 60 on McCabe’s disc (M), Piazzini’s (P) and Schornsheim’s (S).

Therefore to summarise the remainder of Hamelin’s set:

H no. 40 = MPS no. 40 H no. 41 = MPS no. 55 H no. 46 = MPS no. 31
H no. 52 = MPS no. 45 H no. 23 = MPS no. 38 H no. 43 = MPS no. 35
H no. 24 = MPS no. 39 H no. 32 = MPS no. 47 H no. 37 = MPS no. 50

Very well, mechanics apart ... what do the French-Canadian pianist’s performances actually sound like?

My initial impressions were very positive. Frankly I could easily run through the lexicon of adjectives ... not to mention superlatives, to describe the contents of this recital. Hamelin simply breathes new life into these works and to risk that tired old cliché ... they just “leap off the page”. Whilst I would in no way wish to rubbish the efforts of McCabe and co – or indeed ever contemplate discarding their recordings - in terms of dexterity, wit, charm, elegance, and quirky humour Hamelin is simply in a different league.

It’s not just a question of tempo, although this is clearly a factor. Any competent front rank pianist could play these works fast. It’s more the expression ... of quicksilver thinking and imagination which just seems to lift this music on to a different plane. The listener’s metaphorical lapels are grabbed ... and just not released.

Take the very first sonata on Disc 1 (H no. 50, M P S no. 60) the bald opening theme, immediately repeated and elaborated is developed later with seemingly endless resource and pleasure, the initial figure poking out through the texture like a mischievous child playing hide-and-seek behind a curtain. And although Hamelin’s basic tempo is fast he still manages to encompass that “wink in the eye” feel that gives the music such a lift.

Now and again (in Sonata 23 (H), or 38 (MPS)) some sliver of advantage is lost simply by the use of a modern piano. Although properly scintillating in the “toccata-like figuration” (Wigmore), I did feel Schornsheim scored over Hamelin purely through the use of a harpsichord. This is after all a sonata from 1773 - about seven years before Haydn acquired a fortepiano - and therefore suits the instrument better.

Also occasionally I felt a slight loss of gravitas in some of the slower music, especially comparing Hamelin with McCabe. Occasionally this was a result of tempo – though certainly not always. In the largo sostenuto of Sonata no. 37 (MPS no. 50) for instance, Hamelin is actually 5 seconds slower than McCabe.

No perhaps these feelings originate more in the circumstances of the Decca recording. For McCabe I think there was not just a sense of discovery in his traversal - one composer respecting another? - but also a sense of responsibility. This was after all the first integral cycle of Haydn’s piano works and, as a serious musician, this desire to present to the public the “best possible case” for the sonatas emerged in his playing ... generally to good effect.

Having said that Hamelin does provide some beautiful sounds in the slower movements; try Disc 2 Track 2 (Sonata no. 23 again), to hear what I mean. Stumbling across this playing unexpectedly it could, for a few seconds, sound like some “lost” Chopin - without detriment to the memories of either composer. Meanwhile finales are dispatched rapidly; that of No. 37 (Sonata no. 50 - MPS) in just 3:08, but ... that said ... the tempo marking is presto ... one shared by no less than eight of the ten sonatas in the set.

No ... I refuse to end on a churlish note. There are some swings and roundabouts when Hamelin is compared with the other musicians I have listed, and I certainly wouldn’t want to be without the Decca, Arte Nova or Capriccio sets. Indeed Schornsheim has become a great personal favourite. I am so pleased that news of Capriccio’s apparent demise may have been reversed by a management buy-out. Yet ... this Hyperion release must also get a hearty recommendation from me. If nothing else the sparkle, élan and sheer fine musicianship of Hamelin’s approach might just persuade you to seek out other recordings, and thereby widen your knowledge of one of Papa Haydn’s most rewarding, yet still under-appreciated, areas of repertoire.

No bad thing in Haydn anniversary year you might think ...

Ian Bailey

 

 

 


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