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Josef HAYDN (1732-1809)
Sonata in F minor Hob. XVI:23 [20:20]
Sonata in E flat major Hob. XVI:28 [17:30]
Sonata in C major Hob. XVI:38 [10:55]
Adagio in F major, Hob. XVII:9 [20:06]
Andante con variazioni in F minor (1793) Hob. XVII:6
Bobby Mitchell (pianoforte: Stein, 1799)
rec. 13-15 January 2014, Concertgebouw, Bruges.
ALPHA 196 [75:37]

While a student at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague Bobby Mitchell was always one of those musicians who you knew would do well. ‘You need never starve as a pianist’ was something I heard while I was a student myself. You could hold Bobby up as one of those pianists who have truckloads of talent but aren’t too idealistic or precious about their art to join in and perform just about anywhere – within reason. He gained a reputation with contemporary music and mighty recitals of pieces by Frederic Rzewski. To be honest, I had no idea he was such a skilled fortepiano player, or so much into Haydn for that matter. Now, as winner of the first Outhere Music Prize at the International Competition Musique Antiqua in Bruges, this is Mitchell’s first commercial recording.
Haydn keyboard fans will know most of the sonatas here, and the joy is hearing them in a new context and in a spirit of exploration and fantasy. Mitchell’s own booklet note is essential reading when engaging with his interpretations: “Haydn’s piano music entertains and enlightens me when I play it at home alone, but it simultaneously offers me the power to transform into a man of the theatre – comedian, marionettist, satirist, story-teller, tragic hero, when I play it in public.” Some listeners might complain that Haydn’s music is being pulled around too much in these performances, but if you can take your eyes away from the score and hear Mitchell’s playing as more improvisatory, perhaps a personal recreation of how the composer might have played them, then you can relax a bit and allow yourself to be taken on some fascinating journeys. The feeling of embarking on a voyage of discovery is nowhere more apparent with the substantial Andante con variazioni which concludes this programme, and both Haydn and Mitchell keep us guessing and spellbound from start to finish.
Talking of improvisation, Mitchell takes us from one sonata to the next with transitions of his own invention, easing us from one key into the next and keeping us entertained in a playfully Haydn-esque idiom instead of leaving a blank space and hitting each new musical key without preparation.
Comparisons are inevitable, and if you prefer your Haydn a little warmer in sound and more civilized in atmosphere then Ronald Brautigam on BIS is hard to beat (see review). The late 18th century Stein school instrument used by Mitchell is by no means unrefined, but it is more nasal in tone – its sharp contrasts of dynamic suiting the player’s at times explosive demands very well indeed. The recording is not too close, but is highly satisfying in its abundance of range and detail.
These are unlikely to be your only choices for a reference library, but that would be to miss the point. Haydn’s creativity was there to provide diversion to rich patrons, and while we can appreciate his music through scholarly and arguably more accurate performances there is always the chance that these lose the very character of lively spontaneity which no doubt made them so attractive in their day.
Bobby Mitchell’s performances of these Haydn sonatas are very diverting indeed, and as such are a breath of fresh air in anyone’s collection.
Dominy Clements