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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Fantasia in C, Hob XVII:4 «Do Bäuren håt kåtz valor’» (1788) [6.18]
Sonata in Eb #59, Hob XVI: 49 (1790) [20.00]
Sonata in D #60, Hob XVI: 50 (1794) [20.03]
Sonata in D #61, Hob XVI: 51 (1795) [5.36]
Sonata in D #62, Hob XVI: 52 (1798) [20.54]
András Schiff, piano
Recorded Teldec Studio, Berlin, Germany, January 1997
Notes in English, Français, Deutsch. Photos of the artist.
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60807-2 [73.38]

Comparison Recordings of piano music by Haydn:
Capriccio in C, Hob XVII:4, Ronald Brautigam, fortepiano BIS CD-1323
Sonatas Hob XVI: 49/50/51/52: Glenn Gould, piano. CBS M2K 36947
Sonata in D, Hob XVI: 51: Joanna Leach, square piano. Athene ATH CD2
Sonatas, Emanuel Ax, Hob XVI:48, 50 CBS (Sony) MK 44918

Sonatas 32, 33, 53, 54, 58. András Schiff, Warner Elatus 2564 60677-2

András Schiff is one of our greatest living pianists noted, along with Murray Perahia, for his enormous musical intelligence, expressive power, and variety of repertoire. Haydn as a composer of symphonies and oratorios has long been admired, but as a composer of piano sonatas he has been all but ignored. The sonatas were until recently considered to be playthings, irrelevant salon works or student teaching pieces, subjected to great infrequency of performance, often treated as charming curiosities, even performed with the piano lid closed to give them a far-away, nostalgic ambience. Full blooded piano performances are a new development in our appreciation of Classical Period repertoire, the fertile ground from which sprouted the ubiquitous Beethovenian sturm und drang. It never seemed to occur to anyone that, while the old pianos sounded smaller in large auditoriums, which were rare in those days anyway, the experience of sitting at the keyboard and playing the works, which is more what they were intended for, was the same as it is for any instrument. The music was full volume, close, and immediate, and this is how the composer heard it and expected it to be heard.

A conscientious performer is then put on a bit of a tightrope: play the works with all the dynamics and expression that the narrower keyboard, lighter strings, and smaller sounding board of the older pianos could provide, but don’t emasculate the music, don’t make it "charming." And don’t pretend that Haydn actually did have a Steinway D to play on; he didn’t, and pumping up the music to fit the new wider boundaries since become available to us is no more a service to it than to play it on a synthesiser or, say, saxophone quartet.

Schiff of course walks the tightrope perfectly and the music comes totally alive under his fingers. He discovers an enriching variety of textures and vividly depicts the structure of the works—their wit, their intellectual complexity (Haydn was an enthusiastic composer of canons), their artistically balanced design, their balletic quality (Haydn was second only to Tchaikovsky in his ability to create a musical phrase that depicts a human gesture)—displaying a wide range and variety of keyboard colours.

Julius Wender, in his notes to the Ronald Brautigam recording of the Fantasia in C, asserts that the theme is original with Haydn, and not a folksong, whereas in the notes here Mischa Donat gives us the title of a folksong ("The peasant woman has lost her cat..."). A reasonable resolution of this diversity would be to assume that the folksong may be unfamiliar to many scholars, or the tune may diverge sufficiently from the theme of the Fantasia that there may be some reasonable dispute as to whether they are in fact the same tune. For example, is a randy English ballad* actually the theme of the variations movement of Mozart’s A major piano sonata? I say yes, but nobody agrees with me.

Schiff’s performance of the Fantasia is the height of virtuosity, drama, and comedy as the playful cat is chased through every register, key, and musical style, including a little foretaste of Beethovenian moonlight.

These same sonatas played by Glenn Gould feature Gould’s customary adventuresome high-tension adamantine staccato style with just a little of his singing along in the background. Schiff and Ax are more relaxed (i.e., less neurotic), more generous of spirit, the piano closer and richer in sound.

Emanuel Ax has from the very first been concerned with beauty and elegance of sound, his first and most durable recording triumphs being in the music of Chopin. He has in his career played and recorded just about everything, even some Schoenberg, and I suspect he alone among modern great pianists regularly converses with the ghosts of both Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt. I think Ax is strongest in his performances of the slow movements of these sonatas, achieving an operatic sense of lyricism; his piano seems to breathe. Other pianists may achieve just a little more drama in the outer movements through their willingness occasionally to risk playing gracelessly and bluntly, to good effect.

Joanna Leach mingles proudly with this exalted company. At times she is just a bit cautious and regular by comparison, but the authentic sound of her instruments is intriguing and her disks are enjoyable well worth the attention of a serious collector.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because Haydn wrote 60+ piano sonatas they’re all alike and no good. The bad news is that they’re remarkably distinct and all genuinely worth hearing, even if Beethoven did steal so many of Haydn’s ideas that a number of the Haydn piano sonatas will sound startlingly familiar on first hearing. Haydn’s musical personality is very powerful and very likeable and as you make his acquaintance you will find yourself wanting to hear everything he had to say. I’m going to look up the other disk in this Schiff set right away.

*"My thing is my own/and I’ll keep it so still/but other young maidens/may do as they will...."

Paul Shoemaker

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