“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
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
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.
H no. 24 = MPS no. 39 H no. 32 = MPS no. 47 H no. 37 = MPS no.
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
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
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
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
No bad thing in
Haydn anniversary year you might think ...