Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1810)
Great Piano Sonatas
Sonata in F major, Hob.XVI/23 [12:57]
Sonata in C minor, Hob.XVI/20 [18:21]
Sonata in C major, Hob.XVI/48 [12:02]
Andante and Variations in F minor, Hob.XVII/6 [15:40]
Sonata in E-flat major, Hob.XVI/28 [12:32]
Ronan O'Hora (piano)
rec. August 1997, Loughton, UK
REGIS RRC 1311 [71:37]

There is no generally agreed set of "Great Haydn Sonatas". Every pianist picks his own subset, and these usually overlap only partially - a hint as to the richness of the goods that are available. Don't be mislead by the album name: most probably not all that you love is here. Ronan O'Hora recorded four sonatas and Andante con variazioni in 1997, but the CD was issued by Regis only in 2009. This is a pity, because it preserves such wonderful performances. There is no haste - and this is especially noticeable in the first movement of the C minor. The beauty of every note and of every pause is savored. Haydn worked here with minimal means, and managed to create exalted beauty in the smallest things: an interval can be beautiful, a long note, a staccato run, a plain triad, a simple harmonic change. O'Hora's playing is very careful, allowing the music to sing, never pushing. The pianist does not "scarlatti-ize" the music like Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI. O'Hora's approach is closer to Alfred Brendel's on Philips, soft but not too Romantic. Still, he is not mimicking anybody, and his style is special.

The Sonata in F major is always a surprise. The second movement Adagio has unique depth and light. When I listen to it, I feel like becoming a better person, and vow to change my life and start doing good things. Just kidding - but not far from truth. The two movements that frame it are lit with calm smile, and have the close resemblance of siblings.

Haydn's muse rarely sang in the minor key, but when she did, it was unforgettable. His Sonata in C minor is an anticipation of Schubert. The first movement is a wide canvas woven of beautiful melodies, sunlight and shades, Schubert's horses and Mozart's fountains. The second movement seems tranquil and innocent, yet has episodes of intensity; still more moving when produced with such a light touch. The closing movement again has unity with the first one. It also has those moments of free flight that are so rare in music and that make music such a unique art. This is not the eagle's flight on mighty wings, as in Eroica or Sibelius' Second Symphony. This is the graceful fall of a leaf. Mozart could do it. Chopin was a master of it. And Haydn has it in plenty, especially in the piano music and piano trios. One would never guess this if you were relying only on his symphonies.

The Sonata in C major has only two parts: a calm, expressive Andante, and an optimistic, glittering Rondo. There are few dark clouds in the sky, but they dissolve quietly. O'Hora takes pleasure in every note and turns Andante into Adagio, yet he never loses the listener's attention. Heaven and Earth combine in the ensuing Andante con variazioni in F minor, as in Beethoven's late sonatas. Actually, the Sonata has something common with Beethoven's Op.111, but most of all with the Andante of his Pastoral Sonata. I wouldn't mind it being twice as long, it's just so beautiful. Sometimes it is evokes a menacing cortège, dreamy night-music, sometimes it suggests celestial bell-ringing above Elysian meadows. After it, the E-flat major Sonata sounds like an awakening from a disturbing dream. Haydn returns to his cheerful, sunny style. This provides a fitting, very Haydnesque, conclusion to the program.

The recording quality is very good, and the piano has lovely sound. I wonder why on the British Regis label nobody found time just to look at the disc cover and correct the typos. But don't mind the looks: the contents are a marvel.

Most people think about Haydn's music as something just nice and entertaining. Penetrating the heart, romantic drama, philosophical depth probably wouldn't be the first priority. This disc can prove the opposite. The programming is wise, interleaving bright major with introspective minor. Above all, what makes this album really precious is the playing of Ronan O'Hora. I am not talking about the technical side: it is all there, don't worry. I am talking about the feeling - this magic that breathes life into every note and pause. Maybe it's just love.

Oleg Ledeniov