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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Piano Sonata in A major Hob. XVI/12 (c.1767) [12:04]
Piano Sonata in C sharp minor Hob. XVI/36 (1770-1775) [15:34]
Piano Sonata in F major Hob. XVI/23 (1773) [19:48]
Piano Sonata in G minor Hob. XVI/44 (1771-1773) [13:30]
Piano Sonata in D major Hob. XVI/37 (1780) [14:01l
Christopher Howell (piano)
rec. 2018, Studios of Griffa & Figli s.r.l., Milan, Italy
SHEVA SH236 [75:03]

Even if I am not a Haydn aficionado, he is my favourite among the great triumvirate of classical composers – that includes Beethoven and Mozart. I also cannot recall a piece of his that I did not enjoy or appreciate. When I play late 18th or early 19th century piano music, I often battle my way through his Grade 3, 4 and 5 sonatas. So, I am enthusiastic about his music after all! (For the record, when I want to listen to Haydn’s sonatas, I turn to John McCabe’s account on Decca from the 1970s, reissued on CD in 1996.)

The five sonatas appear in the chronological order. Detailed comments would be superfluous: the booklet gives perfectly adequate notes. Christopher Howell is right to characterise Haydn’s sonatas as “intimate, conversational and [sometimes] improvisational”. So, not potboilers for public consumption at a large recital: personal statements, designed to be heard in private or in the chamber. This subtle aesthetic characterises this disc.

Howell supplies notes on the instrument, the ornamentation and the pedal. I am delighted that he has chosen a Steinway, not an 18th century fortepiano. (I have never bought into authentic instruments, even – especially – for Bach and Handel. Others will disagree strongly.) He recognises that ornamentation may be controversial, either too much or too little. Here, he opted for a light touch; the playing is clear, never fussy. He has also kept his foot well under the piano stool. Pedalling might do more harm than good in Haydn’s piano music. There is no smearing or blurring in this recital, and clarity is the order of the day.

The recording captures the intimate nature of the music. The liner notes contain a good introduction to the five sonatas and a brief bio of the pianist. I could not work out the eccentric angles of the booklet cover; there is no mention of the origin of the picture(s), so it may be a collage.

Many readers will associate Christopher Howell with his compendia of British music by Charles Villiers Stanford and Alexander Mackenzie. The two composers’ complete piano works, and Stanford’s songs and violin music, are essential listening for all lovers of British music. Other adventures include the enjoyable An Englishman in Italy presenting British piano music inspired by Italy; songs by Chopin and Moniuszko with the mezzo-soprano Magdalena Aparta; Tosti and Friends with English songs by Italian composers sung by the soprano Ninny Nobile; and Passé, an exploration of romantic song in Italy featuring the mezzo-soprano Elisabetta Paglia. Howell has recently released a superb new recording of Claude Debussy’s masterpiece for piano, the two books of Préludes.

I enjoyed Christopher Howell’s performance of Haydn’s five piano sonatas. Take them one or two at a time: they reward close listening rather than providing background music. It is not clear if Howell plans any more discs of Haydn’s music but it would be good if he did. The disc presents a refreshing take on these accomplished piano works.

John France

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