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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonatas Volume 1:
Piano Sonata No 36 in C major Hob XVI: 21 [20:04]
Piano Sonata No 32 in G minor Hob XVI: 44 [13:51]
Piano Sonata No 29 in E-flat major Hob XVI: 45 [24:18]
Divertimento in E-flat major Hob XVI: 16 [9:39]
Piano Sonata No 52 in G major Hob XVI: 39 [17:12]
Piano Sonata No 47 in B minor Hob XVI: 32 [15:34]
Roman Rabinovich (piano)
rec. 24-30 October 2016, American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City
Reviewed as a digital download
FIRST HAND RECORDS FHR071 [58:11 + 42:23]

This first volume of what I hope will be a complete set of the Haydn keyboard sonatas seems to have slipped through the MusicWeb net. With a second volume in the offing (review forthcoming), I thought it timely to revisit this 2018 release. I came across it last year when I was conducting a personal appraisal of the available recordings of these wonderful but under-appreciated compositions. I will say at the outset that Rabinovich beat all-comers hands down.

These are not easy pieces to pull off. One of the substantial differences between them and Mozart’s piano sonatas is that Mozart, as a practising virtuoso, wrote pieces guaranteed to make an impact. The bulk of Haydn’s were written for domestic use, which makes their effects subtler. The Haydn sonatas are much more character pieces than show ponies. As such they are much more varied than Mozart’s. I dearly love the Mozart piano sonatas but, given the choice, I would opt for Haydn’s every time.

The first big difficulty in reviewing recordings of the Haydn sonatas is how many performers play them as if they were Mozart. This translates into clean, elegant, often brilliant pianism but performances that skate over the wit, the passion and the bizarre in these works. Each sonata, even the very earliest, has its own distinctive personality and unless the performer discovers this the performance will be facile at best. The much admired Bavouzet on Chandos sounds blandly disinterested as if observing affairs through a telescope. That is when he doesn’t sound like he is hurrying for fear of missing his train. Andsnes, on the other hand, sounds like he is trying to achieve an Olympic qualifying time, substituting speed for personality.

At the opposite extreme, we have those performers who, having discovered Haydn’s wit, decide to invest every phrase with the pianistic equivalent of pulling a grotesque face. Even the doyen of Haydn piano sonatas, Alfred Brendel, is guilty of such distortions at times.

The interpreter who assumes these are easy pieces for students is sleepwalking into a minefield. Like a great chef, the pianist needs to balance wit with elegance, passion with exuberance, despair with joy whilst retaining what makes this particular sonata distinctive. Of all the many pianists I have heard in these works, no one gets so consistently to the heart of the matter as well as Rabinovich.

One obvious feature of his interpretations is his understanding of how Haydn’s very quirky melodies unfold. Too many pianists seek to flatten out the oddities of rhythm or the melodic arch. Rabinovich revels in them. A typical example is the melody Haydn builds out of elements of the exposition during the first movement development of the Sonata No 29 in E-flat. This is a strange and wonderful thing, yet too often it zips past largely unregistered. Rabinovich is keenly attuned to the slight ache in its unfolding. It is characteristic of his sensitivity that he doesn’t overplay his hand either.

A regular gripe of mine about recordings of these sonatas concerns tempi. The period instrument era seems to have given licence to performers to choose any speed they want, so long as it is fast. This is particularly problematic given that so many first movements amongst the sonatas are marked Moderato or Allegro Moderato. For reasons that are a mystery to me, the majority of interpreters seem to have decided that this translates into a brisk allegro. So much of Haydn’s fantasy gets blurred at too high a speed and one of the delights of this set is that Rabinovich is unafraid of a genuinely leisurely strolling Allegro Moderato. The opening movement of the B minor sonata is a good example amongst many.

I rather suspect that faster tempi allow pianists to show off their finger dexterity but I very much doubt that the vast majority of these works were written with such technical wizardry in mind. I imagine Haydn wanted to entertain his domestic performers with his humour, fantasy and depth of feeling, not set them fearsome pianistic challenges. It seems to be the fact that most of the sonatas are not particularly hard to play that stumps so many concert pianists. But mostly it derives from a neglect of detail. Everything Haydn does in these works has a point and requires careful consideration not just as to its effect but where it fits into a whole. These are very much entire works rather than random collections of movements. Even the E-flat Sonata mentioned previously has a carefully calibrated sequence of movements. Take the finale at too fast a pace and you will create a stunning effect but also a movement that sounds like Beethoven tacked on to a work by Haydn. This, for me, is a frequent failing of Hamelin who is otherwise one of the more sensitive performers. Balance is as key for Haydn as excess is for Beethoven. Haydn is capable of generating colossal energy but he always makes sure it is counterbalanced.

The same point could be made about the emotional range of these works. This isn’t just a matter of grander passions, though many a speed merchant underplays those too. Haydn’s emotional range is stunning and covers all manner of nuances, including many completely neglected feelings like frustration or boredom! For me this makes Haydn the most humane of all composers in that he doesn’t shy away from ordinary everyday feelings. To try artificially to create a Beethovenian epic quality ruins the subtlety of Haydn’s visions. It is rather like mistaking Chekhov for Dostoevsky. Rabinovich has the courage to keep this music small and nuanced.

The highest praise I can give any performance is that the performer really understands the music from the inside and this is most definitely the case with Roman Rabinovich and Haydn. This is the kind of record which, when I get to the end, I start again from the beginning. It is that good.

David McDade

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