UND GRIMM Archive MDG642 1086-2 [ADD] [six discs] [389'49] Recorded
Werner Haas’ career was tragically cut short by a motor
accident on October 11th, 1976 when his car collided with a truck near
Nancy, France. It robbed us of a pianist whose stature has never, at
least in the UK, been fully appreciated. Yet his recordings of Debussy
piano works were awarded the Grand Prix du Disque and his Ravel recordings
won the Amsterdam Edison Prize. Critics called him the successor to
Gieseking (New York Times). These are no mean achievements and here,
at last, is a real opportunity from the archives of South West German
Radio and Swiss Radio to supplement his already extant, but relatively
small, discography for Philips. And here, also, is an ideal chance for
This six-disc set might, given wide enough coverage,
go some way to redress this error of perspective. Haas had a natural
affinity with the French Impressionists (try his Debussy sets on Philips
Duo 438 718-2 and 438 721-2), but they take up a relatively small part
of this collection. Instead we get a sense of the breadth of his repertoire,
starting from Bach and moving through to a final disc as fascinating
for its repertoire as it is gripping in its execution. The record-buying
public is indeed lucky to have companies like Dabringhaus and Grimm
to mine the archives in this fashion. The six discs are intelligently
The first is a live concert from Bern, Switzerland
given on November 4th, 1969, preserved by Schweizer Radio DRS (Tonstudio
Bern). He gives an inspired account of the first movement of Beethoven
Op. 109, using a pearly touch to ensure maximum clarity: his articulation
is consistently excellent. The opening gives a marvellous feeling of
improvisation, yet from the first note the structural integrity of the
entire movement is never in doubt. His second movement variations just
fail to live up to the promise of the first, but this is not to decry
the overall achievement. The theme is certainly ‘Gesangvoll’ as Beethoven
directs, but is maybe the smallest fraction too fast. Some of the earlier
variations are on the perfunctory side, perhaps in an effort to save
the intensity for the final minutes. The third variation is turned into
a manic toccata, all the more effective in its contrast to the fourth.
This fourth variation marks a return to the inspired improvisation of
the first movement. The final Allegro ma non troppo is rock-like in
intent, with an almost palpable sense of resolve. The build-up which
forms the heart of this final section is effective, without quite giving
the necessary impression that the piano is about to burst under the
harmonic and textural accumulations.
The Chopin pieces which follow reveal a musician hyper-sensitive
to that composer's harmonic shifts. He refuses to let the Etude Op.
25 No. 9 sound hackneyed (it so easily can). Only the B flat minor Scherzo
(the first of two appearances in this box: see Disc Five) threatens
to come unstuck at one point. If the F sharp Nocturne shows Haas to
be a true lyricist at heart, the Ravel Sonatine confirms his
haute-sensitivité to Gallic repertoire and is invaluable
as a supplement to his commercial French recordings. There is great
joy to be gleaned from both this piece and the ensuing account of Debussy's
Estampes. Listen to the egg-shell delicacy of the Ravel or the
evocative pseudo-Orientalism of Debussy's ‘Pagodes’. The two (deserved)
encores are exemplary: the voice-leading of Chopin’s A flat Etude is
a perfectly-realised aural Schenker-graph; in contrast, Gnomenreigen
is a virtuoso, mischievous tour-de-force. The first time I heard this
disc, I had to go straight to CD two to see if the standard could be
The second disc begins a (nearly) chronological five-CD
progression through the centuries from Bach to Stravinsky. The Italian
Concerto (recorded in 1972: dates placed like this after works henceforth
denote date of recording) is robust and very much of its time. The first
movement is big-boned, the last not very Presto. The second movement,
however, successfully projects the idea of aria with string accompaniment.
His Beethoven Op. 14 No. 2 (rec 1975), also, would not stand up to an
authenticist approach today, but on its own terms is wholly convincing.
The first movement is hardly Beethoven’s recommended Allegro (and even
within that slower tempo there is a certain amount of over-beautification),
but one can only marvel at Haas’s articulation and harmonic clarity.
In fact, overall he elevates the stature of this Sonata by refusing
to see it as ‘easy’ or ‘light’ but by lavishing much care and attention
on it: it emerges as the miniature masterpiece it really is. Finally
for Disc Two, Schumann's Phantasiestücke (1975) is given
a good, if not heart-stoppingly revelatory, performance. There is certainly
intimacy here, but a comparison with Argerich (live on EMI, CDC5 57101-2)
reveals a shift to a higher plane. The second movement, ‘Aufschwung’,
is decidedly earthbound in Haas’s version and his ‘Grillen’ runs out
of steam, but it is in ‘Fabel’ that the difference is most marked. The
schizophrenic shifts are almost apologetically managed, whereas Argerich
unsurprisingly has no such qualms and is all the more successful in
her portrayal because of it.
Discs Three-Five all feature a single composer each.
Disc Three is devoted to Beethoven, and was recorded in 1963/4. These
are the earliest recordings of the set, and the piano sound is indeed
thin. Having said that, there is so much to enjoy it hardly matters.
Again, an early sonata (Op. 2 No. 3) is accorded the weight it deserves.
Haas brings an apt simplicity to the opening of the second movement,
but impresses most of all in the finale with its sparkling finger-work
and a left-hand trill so even that I would willingly buy it off him.
Perhaps he does stretch the limits of style in the perfectly formed
Sonata Op. 10 No. 2, but his accounts of two of the Op. 31 Sonatas are
in general excellent (just compare Haas with Louis Lortie’s catalogue
of miscalculations on Chandos CHAN9842). The recitatives of the first
movement of Op. 31 No. 2 are grippingly done and Haas calls on almost
orchestral sonorities in the Adagio. Only the final Allegretto disappoints.
Despite being quite fast, he does not quite maintain the dramatic momentum
in this notoriously tricky movement. Op. 31 No. 3 reveals intelligent
structural grasp. His refusal to over-pedal is praise-worthy and I particularly
like his way with syncopated accents in the Scherzo.
Haas’s Schumann perhaps does not live up to the standards
set thus far, something hinted at by his Phantasiestücke
on Disc Two. The performances of Disc Four date from 1972/3. The recorded
sound is clangy (and is set at a higher level), which hardly helps to
draw the listener in to the intimacies of Kinderszenen (1972).
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy along the way: the dexterity of
‘Hasche-Mann’ is most impressive, and ‘Träumerei’ is given with
eloquent simplicity, showing Haas is intelligent enough a musician to
know when to leave a piece alone. Carnaval is the first real
musical disappointment of the set. The opening 'Préambule' is
leaden, and one never throughout the performance enters into the world
of the Commedia dell' arte, nor is Schumann’s schizophrenic nature
tellingly projected. It is certainly true that there are some beautiful
moments to be treasured along the way (the beautifully limpid ‘Chopin’
being one of them) but this in no way amounts to a great interpretation
of this elusive piece. The Symphonic Studies similarly pose a
multitude of interpretative challenges and, in general, all goes well
until the finale. Haas falls into the trap of not generating the requisite
cumulative energy from Schumann’s obsessive repetitions, and he also
lets the lyrical episodes languish. There is simply not enough contrast
or build-up and the result is a disappointing, almost tedious end to
this disc with an interpretation that at one point threatens to disintegrate.
The all-Chopin fifth disc (all 1971 except for the
Op. 47 Ballade, 1966), in contrast, presents Haas at his most compelling.
His B flat minor Scherzo, Op. 31 is bolder than that heard way back
on Disc One. He is freer in the lyrical passages, and has the listener
hanging on every note. If he could be more capricious in the contrasting
filigree of the C sharp minor Scherzo, his B minor is an impressive
achievement of dexterity. The Op. 9 Nocturnes seem to have been recorded
in a more resonant acoustic, but his A flat Ballade is a success. After
a beautifully intimate opening, Haas stresses the contrasts inherent
in the composition.
On the first five discs, as can be seen from the above,
there was more than enough food for thought, with plenty of musical
satisfaction along the way. But the sixth disc is worth the price of
all the discs put together. Haas’s grasp of Prokofiev’s world is remarkable.
He realises the balance of violence and lyricism of the Second Sonata
(1974) well (seeming to enjoy the violence in particular!). His Scherzo
is manic, his Andante calmly, but perfectly, Russian, his final movement
virtuoso. The quirky first movement of the same composer’s Fourth Sonata
is excellently done (this sonata was recorded eight years earlier).
He reveals in these pieces that he can be appropriately spiky and in
the case of the Andante assai of the Fourth Sonata leads the listener
into Prokofiev’s dark side.
Haas brings out the Chopin influence on Scriabin in
the selection of Preludes and Etudes (1974) here. The A minor Prelude
from Op.13 displays Haas’s flair for florid finger-work, while the C
sharp minor Etude gives him an opportunity to reveal his truly passionate
In many ways, the Kabalevsky Third Piano Sonata (1974)
is the revelation of the set. Horowitz gave the US premiere of this
piece which should simply be heard more often. Haas underlines the shadows
of the slow movement, builds the first to a true climax and delivers
the echt-Slav, spiky finale to perfection. I do urge you to hear
this. The set ends with an energizing performance (again from 1974)
of Stravinsky’s 1924 Sonata. The etude-like finale shows not only the
strength of Haas's fingers (as if that could be in doubt by this point),
but also his capacity for wit. It is an appropriate end to a superb
compilation to which I shall be returning many times.