Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Keyboard concerto in D major, H XVIII:11 [19:44]
Keyboard concerto in G major, H XVIII:4 [23:55]
Keyboard concerto in F major, H XVIII:3 [21:00]
Jolanda Violante (fortepiano)
L’Arte dell’Arco/Federico Guglielmo (violin and director)
rec. 18-28 April 2008, Studio Magister, Preganziol-Treviso, Italy.

Nothing contrasts Haydn’s music with that of his contemporary and friend Mozart like their keyboard concertos. Haydn wrote some 14 concertos to Mozart’s 27, and many of these were as capable of being played on the organ or harpsichord as on the fortepiano. Admittedly the early Mozart concertos also lend themselves to the harpsichord – I have a recording of no. 9, the “Jeunehomme”, on that instrument. But Mozart’s mature concertos are inseparable from the dynamic contrasts of the fortepiano. He, far more than Haydn, grasped the potential for dramatic and intimate dialogue between soloist and orchestra. The result is that, while Mozart’s concertos are central to his evolution as a composer, the same cannot be said of those by Haydn.

The Haydn keyboard concertos are nevertheless worth getting to know. The two earliest examples on this recording date from 1770-71, and are pleasant works in the Galant style. The last, no. 11 in D major, has been dated to 1779-80, and is much more in the style of the Classical concerto. For most people this work is “The Haydn keyboard concerto”; it has received far more recordings than any other of Haydn’s keyboard concertos. On the present disc these concertos are all played on a fortepiano by Jolanda Violante, with a period instruments orchestra.

There are no notes about the instrument Violante is playing, but it sounds like a modern copy of a fortepiano. Unfortunately the sound of this instrument is the major letdown of this disc. It is just not very interesting, having little of the contrasting registers and tonal variety of historic fortepianos like a Stein or Graf. I don’t know if it has an una corda pedal, but if so I couldn’t hear any trace of it; this effect would have added some much needed variety to its tone colour.

Violante does not add much ornamentation, or employ rubato noticeably, except in the slow movements. Her playing of these works is generally very enjoyable; her passage work is clean and her demeanour is both sprightly and imperturbable. Occasionally, for example in the “Hungarian” finale of no. 11, she races the orchestra in a vivacious fashion. The light action of the fortepiano comes into its own in the outer movements, allowing Violante to rattle off the extended scale and arpeggio passages at great velocity. But the slow movements are a little on the dull side, mainly because of the rather dead-sounding solo instrument.

The orchestra has an attractively “coloured” sound and plays in excellent style, with the usual period instrument dynamic bulges. The finales are attacked with real brio and vitality. No information is given about this ensemble, but they sound quite small in number. Winds feature only in no. 11; the liner-notes mention that no. 3 includes a pair of ad libitum horn parts, but only strings are used for this and no. 4. For some reason the orchestra sounds a bit livelier (and louder) in concertos nos. 3 and 4 than in no. 11. This is a pity, because it means that, although no. 11 is the most substantial work on this disc, it gets the most distant recording.

Leif Ove Andsnes recorded the same three Haydn concertos in 2000 with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra. That recording received Gramophone magazine’s award for "Best Concerto Recording" for that year. On that disc (EMI Classics 56960), the concertos are played in ascending number order; for some reason, the Brilliant disc plays them in the reverse order. Andsnes directs the orchestra as well as playing the solo on a modern grand piano, and does both with his usual sensitivity. Tempos are similar to those on the Brilliant disc. Although the orchestra plays on modern instruments, it adopts several period-instrument practices. These performances thus have most of the advantages of a historically informed performance, with none of the drawbacks. The Concerto no. 11 is also available in the same recording on the compilation disc set “Leif Ove Andsnes: a portrait” (EMI Classics 74789).

Those who dislike the fortepiano won’t be converted by this release. However its bargain price, together with Jolanda Violante’s stylish playing and a really excellent period orchestra are undoubted attractions.

Guy Aron

The orchestra plays extremely and Violante is an able and agile soloist, but their efforts are undermined by a dull-sounding fortepiano.