Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonatas - Volume 2
Sonata no.48 in C Hob.XVI.35) [16:16], Sonata no.32 in G minor Hob.XVI:44 [12:08], Sonata no.50 in D Hob.XVI:37 [12:06], Sonata no.19 in E minor Hob.XVI:47bis [13:35], Sonata no.20 in B flat Hob.XVI:18 [14:23]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 6-8 October 2009 (no.48), 19-21 June 2010 (others)
CHANDOS CHAN 10668 [68:29]

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 the booklet.

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 than Bavouzet.

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 laHaydn_Sonatas_Vol.2_Bavouzet_CHAN10668st 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.

Christopher Howell

Maybe two successes, one failure and two in between is the best that can be expected of five Haydn sonatas from one artist./blockquote>