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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1810)
Piano concerto in F, Hob. XVIII: 3 [21:13]
Piano concerto in G, Hob. XVIII: 4 (1768/9) [19:54]
Piano concerto in D, Hob. XVIII: 11 (1779/80) [19:10]
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Manchester Camerata/Gábor Takács-Nagy
rec. Royal Northern College of Music Concert Hall, Manchester, 14-15 October 2013
CHANDOS CHAN10808 [60:17]

I’ve listened to Marc-André Hamelin, Angela Hewitt, Jenő Jandó and Jean-Efflam Bavouzet playing Haydn’s solo keyboard music without ever finding it more than pleasant. This was my first encounter with the concertos, and given my previous experiences and that no one has ever seen these works as being the equal of the cello and trumpet concertos, I didn’t have great expectations.
 
These three concertos, of the fourteen he wrote, are the most often recorded, especially the D major, which I was quite surprised to find has 75 entries on ArkivMusic — almost as many as the cello and trumpet works, and more than Mozart’s No. 18, K456. Clearly, pianists think it has merit.
 
On first listening, my fears, or more accurately, assumptions, were proven true: pleasant background music, but nothing more, and my attention wandered. The slow movement of the F major concerto brought me back – here was something of more substance, and played with great refinement by Bavouzet. The rondo was diverting, but little more. When the player reached the oft-recorded D major work, I made myself listen carefully. Surely with so many recordings by prominent performers, Horowitz, Michelangeli to name just two, this must be at the Mozart level – but no, it made no more impression on me than the other two.
 
I didn’t believe that the performances were the cause of my lack of engagement, but to make sure, I auditioned, via the Naxos Music Library, versions by Emanuel Ax (Sony) and Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI) with pianos and modern chamber orchestras, and Ronald Brautigam (BIS) and Andreas Staier (Harmonia Mundi) with fortepianos and period instrument baroque ensembles.
 
Unsurprisingly, the contrast between modern and period was dramatic, but also frustrating. I found the orchestral accompaniment for Staier (Freiburg) and Brautigam (Concerto Copenhagen) to be quite thrilling — though possibly tiring over longer listening — and made the music come alive so much more than the . Unfortunately, as soon as the fortepiano entered, it all went to waste – the sound was, for me, totally uninviting. I admit to not being a fan of the instrument, but recently heard two recordings of concertos by Jan Dussek – one modern (Hyperion) and the other period (Capriccio) – and found the fortepiano trumped the modern piano comprehensively.
 
Having heard the possibilities of these works, it was frustrating to find than the two modern instrument performances (Ax and Andsnes) did not thrill me, even though the sound of the piano was so much more pleasing. Of the two, the Ax was much better, both from the soloist and the accompaniment. Comparing it to the Chandos recording under consideration was a mixed bag. I enjoyed Bavouzet’s performance greatly, but felt that the Manchester Camerata were inferior to the Franz Liszt CO on the Ax recording.
 
I don’t believe, in this instance, that the usual rich, creamy Chandos sound does the performers, especially the orchestra, any favours in the faster movements. It somewhat smothers the lightness and verve necessary to lift these works. The same can’t be said for the piano, which sounds quite beautiful, much better than that for Ax or Andsnes.
 
Swings and roundabouts here – fine playing from Bavouzet, but while these works are certainly enjoyable diversions, they remain peripheral Haydn. My main conclusion from this might well be that I should seek out some period orchestra performances of the Haydn cello concertos and symphonies.
 
David Barker