Many moons ago, in a master class at Edinburgh University held
by the late Denis Matthews, I was chided for describing Hob.XVI:37
as Sonata no.50. Everyone knows it as no.37, I was sternly told:
giving it a new number just creates confusion. All I was doing
was repeating the number from the then fairly new Universal
Edition! So it was nice to find Bavouzet using the UE numbers
too, as above. Perhaps people have got used to them over the
years, but the rival Henle Edition ducks the numbering issue
by just putting them into small groups. Other recorded editions,
such as Hamelin’s, don’t use a numbering system apart from the
Hob. nos.; nor did Brendel with the eleven he set down between
1979 and 1985. In truth, while people seem to be able to remember
Haydn symphonies by their numbers, and the string quartets by
their opus numbers, the piano sonatas tend to be just remembered
by descriptions such as – in this case – “the D major one with
the D minor slow movement”.
Anyway, I suppose it doesn’t matter what you call it, the important
thing is to play it. Coming to that, the late, great Denis Matthews
chided me once again, all those years ago, for inserting a little
cadenza at a point in the first movement – just before the recapitulation
– where the music paused, followed by a trill, and also for
decorating the repeats in the slow movement. “What you do is
creative”, he allowed, “but I’m not sure this is the right place
for it”. And I should explain to any American readers that in
those days the Brits were still a very polite race and what
he really meant was that he was darned sure it wasn’t the right
place for it.
How nice, then, after all this time, to read in the booklet
Bavouzet’s thoughts on such matters: “I have ruthlessly exploited
the entire armoury of trills, mordants, and micro-cadenzas in
order to prevent that repeats be mere straightforward rhetorical
formalities”. Vindicated at last!
It is sobering to think that I am now older than the late-and-great
Denis Matthews was when he held that master class. Regarding
ornaments and cadenzas, I must also say that back then I wasn’t
setting down a recording. There’s always the danger that a spontaneous
embellishment to the score, however attractive when heard just
once in a concert, might be perceived by the scoreless CD listener
as “how the music is”. So after all these years, I’m not sure
that this is the place for such things, creative or not. And
I should explain to my American readers that modern Brits can
be rude when they wish and I don’t mean I’m darned sure it isn’t
the place for them, I just literally mean I’m not sure. These,
you understand, were my theoretical consideration on reading
Then I listened to the recording.
The pianist doth protest too much! Any decoration is strictly
reserved for repeats, so the listener is not left in any doubt
about what Haydn actually wrote. The ornamentation is limited
to an odd extra trill here, half a twiddle there, and by micro-cadenzas
he really means micro-flourishes. Hardly enough to be worth
warning us about. The late, and oh so great, Denis Matthews’s
hackles would have been unaroused by anything here. Thirty years
ago Brendel was doing as much. Indeed, I’m not sure that Bavouzet
might not have added considerably more. And I should explain
to my American readers that, even in 2011, this can mean I’m
goddamn sure he could.
So these are straightforward Haydn-on-the-modern-piano performances.
The only thing that matters is how good they are.
The E minor is very good indeed. The opening “siciliana” slow
movement recalls the control of nuance and texture that distinguished
the best of Bavouzet’s Debussy. And it is followed by a bright
but unhurried Allegro, all the more welcome since Bavouzet elsewhere
tends to go full tilt at such movements.
My opinion of Bavouzet’s D major rose after comparing his performance
with Brendel’s. Bavouzet’s first movement seemed uncomfortably
fast, but Brendel can play it faster still, and does. A waspish
attack on the music that is unlikely to have won friends for
either the pianist or the composer. Compared with this, Bavouzet
seems positively spacious. On the other hand, Brendel can, when
he feels like it, do things that maybe Bavouzet can’t. The opening
of the finale is marked “innocentemente” and Brendel sidles
in with a Schubertian innocence that is quite magical. Whether
it’s quite worth while putting up with his previous unpleasantness
– his slow movement is unrelenting, too – for the sake of this
moment is another matter. Later Brendel gets hard-toned again,
but throughout this finale he characterizes the music more sharply
Elsewhere, we are left reflecting how difficult this music is
to bring off. Much harder than Mozart, its problems are similar
to those of C.P.E. Bach. Often, as at the start of the G minor,
we find a barely supported line, in a spare texture, that carries
the entire weight of the expression. On a modern piano, there
is the risk that it will sound ungainly if too much is brought
to bear on it, or flimsy if it is not made duly expressive.
Bavouzet is certainly never flimsy, but he is sometimes heavy-handed,
as if he wishes the texture were fuller than it is. When in
doubt, a sort of all purpose aggression seems to prevail. A
particularly bad case is the B flat, raising another question.
The former image of bewigged Papa Haydn has no doubt disappeared
unlamented, but could not the poor man be elegant or graceful
just once in a while? And if you argue that elegance and grace
are affected qualities, then I’d say that what I miss overall
is that very human quality of graciousness which older interpreters
used to find in Haydn. As I say, the B flat without this is
reduced to just so much noise, with the C major and the G minor
not all that much better.
But these last two point to a further problem. While there seem
to be a wide variety of effective ways of playing Beethoven
or Mozart, with Haydn the margin of error is perhaps smaller.
If you find the particular quality of the work you are playing,
as Bavouzet does with the E minor and I think on the whole –
after I’d emerged bruised and battered from Brendel – the D
major, it yields all the delights, surprises and expression
we expect from the composer. If you get it quite wrong, as Bavouzet
does with the B flat, you end up with nothing. Perhaps that’s
not so surprising. But even the middling course he takes with
the G minor and the C major, though apparently unobjectionable,
leaves him with nothing just the same. If you don’t find the
particular character of a Haydn sonata, the message seems to
be, it simply emerges without any character at all.
I don’t know what sort of recommendation this makes. Given the
difficulty of the music, maybe two successes, one failure and
two in between is the best that can be expected of five Haydn
sonatas from one artist. Just remember that, if some sonatas
convince more than others, it’s probably not because of the
music. Certainly, it’s not the fault of the excellent recording
or the informative booklet notes.