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Hyperion Records

CDA67554 - Haydn: Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Recording details: December 2005
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: March 2007
Total duration: 144 minutes 15 seconds


'The ever-phenomenal Marc-André Hamelin breaks out into the light with a two-disc set of Haydn sonatas … these are astonishing performances … Hyperion's sound and presentation are, as always, immaculate' (Gramophone)

'Hamelin kicks off with the late C major Sonata, Hob XVI:50, nailing his virtuoso credentials firmly to the mast with a mercurial account of its opening movement … Hamelin's playing is dazzling … these are altogether splendid performances … these beautifully recorded performances can't be recommended too highly' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This French-Canadian pianist is equal to anything … marvels of dexterity coupled with the most refined art … the fast pieces are preturnaturally smooth, the slow ones beautifully expressive' (The Independent)

'Hamelin's coruscating virtuosity and colouristic flair can be taken for granted. But his phenomenal technique is never an end in itself. This is playing of elegance, subtlety and a subversive Haydnesque wit. Hamelin delights in the composer's penchant for wrong-footing the listener. The madcap scherzo finale of No 50, with its outrageous pauses and deflections to the most improbable keys, is deliciously timed … elsewhere, Hamelin conjures a wonderful of veiled inwardness in the adagio of No 46, and an almost Chopin-like poetry in the dreamy F minor siciliano in No 23. But Hamelin's exhilarating reading has its own validity, while the finale is dazzling in its brio and comic legerdemain. This is just the sort of Haydn playing—colourful, inventive, impish—that should win these sonatas a wider following' (The Daily Telegraph)

'For those interested in Haydn (which should include everyone who cares about music) this is a particularly valuable release … every work on this set is worthy of repeated hearings … Hamelin is a stylish and accomplished pianist. His tone is aptly lean with no untoward use of the sustaining pedal or imposition of an undue rupturing of pulse. His runs are immaculate, even in the most rapidly articulated passages, and textures are always sharply focused … a special virtue of this release is the inclusion of an essay by Richard Wigmore. Providing cogent information that touches a variety of issues impossible to glean from a single source, it stands, in effect, as a model of what insert notes should be and rarely are. Throughout both CDs the sound is ideal' (International Record Review)

Hamelin's gift for making light of complex textures and technically taxing writing is here harnessed to music of Classical clarity and economy. It is without doubt one of his finest achievements—and that's saying something. This cleverly chosen selection of diverse character is played with masterly resourcefulness. Hamelin can do deadpan humour (the finale of No 40) and brilliant note-spinning (No 32) like few others, but also finds a truly affecting wistfulness in some of the slow movements. Superbly recorded, this is a life-enhancing release' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Marc-André Hamelin joyfully tackles ten of the later sonatas on his generously presented two-for-one release from Hyperion, and one cannot but be intoxicated by such happy piano playing' (Pianist)

'Marc-André Hamelin's virtuosity is in a different league altogether. The pearly evenness of his touch, his immaculate negotiation of even the trickiest of figurations and nonchalant despatch of semiquavers at the highest velocity, indulges the physical exhilaration of Haydn's playful inspiration in a way unmatched by any pianist past or present … even Hamelin has made few discs to equal this and none finer' (International Piano)

'Hamelin begins his tour with the Sonata No 50 in C, Hob XVI:50 … the teasing opening and brusque outbursts in the opening movement are fully rendered by Hamelin, who embraces the cheeky syncopations, as well. There's something heartbreaking about Hamelin's playing in the tender Adagio to Sonata No 46 in A flat, Hob XVI:41. The single line, unsupported by any left-hand accompaniment rises and falls like a lullaby, gaining definition when Haydn finally brings in the left hand. There's more where that came from in the Adagio to Sonata No 23 in F, Hob XVI:23, which Hamelin treats as if it were a lost opera aria. Hamelin places the harmonic accents in just the right place, and he does it again and again over two discs' (Time Out Chicago)

'These superb performances—brisk, witty, emotionally evocative—reflect glory on him and Haydn alike … Hamelin is equally commanding through all of the composer's moods, skipping nimbly across the keyboard with unerring precision and then turning a slow movement into a hauntingly eloquent dramatic solo. Best of all, he gets the jokes, which he brings forward without underlining them. The result is a series of buoyant renditions' (San Francisco Chronicle)

'It is literally true that almost every new disc by Hamelin is an adventure and a revelation-in waiting. Should anyone ask why a pianist as technically daunting and so usually given to difficult and unusual repertoire (Alkan, Ornstein, Wolpe, Busoni) is now essaying two discs of piano sonatas by good old 'Papa' Haydn, all you have to do is listen to the opening C major Piano Sonata No 50 and you know you’re a long way from music intended to be pedagogic and little else. There is extravagance here of the sort Hamelin has always fed on all through this marvelous two disc set and Hamelin’s inclination toward whirlwind, occasionally almost violent prestos, Lisztian slow tempos and Bachian counterpoint brings out the bracing musical mind that so many of the greatest musicians have long insisted on beneath the classical era's Viennese paterfamilias' (The Buffalo News, USA)

'Hyperion's recording is as usual excellent with a proper focus given to the piano without making it sound overtly domineering or presumptuous. Richard Wigmore's copiously detailed notes are essential reading for the discerning Haydn scholar and thus I have nothing left to add but a wholehearted recommendation for this rather excellent double CD set which incidentally is tantalizingly offered for the price of one' (

'Hamelin finds in this music what so many performers of Haydn miss—the universality of utterance, the almost Shakespearean range of emotions, hiding within the classicism of Haydn's musical language' (La Folia, USA)

Piano Sonatas, Vol. 1
Allegro  [6'37]
Adagio  [6'21]
Allegro molto  [2'24]
Presto  [2'52]
Adagio  [8'46]
Finale: Presto  [3'40]
Allegro  [7'40]
Allegro di molto  [2'09]
Allegro moderato  [7'38]
Adagio  [6'49]
Finale: Presto  [5'34]
Moderato  [6'12]
Adagio  [7'13]
Finale: Presto  [3'20]
Moderato  [7'45]
Rondo: Presto  [4'34]
Allegro  [6'31]
Adagio  [3'37]
Finale: Presto  [1'53]
Allegro moderato  [5'57]
Menuet  [3'42]
Finale: Presto  [4'11]
Allegro con brio  [5'27]

Hyperion’s Record of the Month for March—a generous two-for-the-price-of-one set—pits enthusiastic composer and master pianist Marc-André Hamelin against enthusiastic pianist and master composer Franz Joseph Haydn.

Epitomizing the evolution of the Classical sonata, Haydn’s iconic contributions to the genre, some sixty in total, have in some respects become victims of their own perfection, ignored by all but a handful of today’s leading pianists and relegated to the classroom. But in the hands of Maestro Hamelin these crystalline marvels are released from such transient shackles—to wondrous effect.

The programme is varied: a tour through Haydn’s ‘experimental’ and ‘popularist’ styles culminates with two of the acknowledged ‘great’ sonatas, Nos 50 and 52. And how suited this all is to the performer: Hamelin’s devotion to virtuosic innovation—as reflected in his astonishing discography—is so firmly rooted in his passion for a sense of pianistic genealogy that these seminal works seem entirely in keeping with his more pyrotechnical reputation.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
In popular mythology Haydn’s name is far less closely associated with the piano sonata than with the string quartet or symphony. Though a more than competent pianist (one writer in London described his playing of the brilliant fortepiano solo in the Symphony No 98 as ‘neat and distinct’), he was by his own admission no ‘wizard’ on the keyboard, and unlike Mozart and Beethoven never wrote sonatas for his own performance. Yet the keyboard remained central to Haydn’s creative process. His morning routine would invariably begin with him trying out ideas, for whatever medium, on the clavichord, the harpsichord or, from the 1780s, the fortepiano; and he composed prolifically for keyboard through most of his adult life, beginning with the harpsichord works he produced for aristocratic pupils during his ‘galley years’ in Vienna and culminating in the three great sonatas (Nos 50–52 in Hoboken’s catalogue) inspired by the sonorous Broadwood instruments he encountered on his London visits.

With a few exceptions, Haydn’s sixty-odd sonatas are habitually relegated to teaching fare, ignored by all but a handful of leading pianists. Yet far more than Mozart’s much slenderer body of sonatas, they chart and epitomize the evolution of the Classical sonata: from the lightweight early divertimenti and partitas, modelled on the harpsichord style of composers such as Galuppi and the Viennese Georg Wagenseil, through the more individual sonatas of the late 1760s and early 1770s, several influenced by the Empfindsamkeit of C P E Bach, and the consciously ‘popular’ idiom of the 1770s and 1780s, to the magnificent, often prophetic works written for public performance in London.

No Haydn sonata is more indebted to Emanuel Bach’s brand of Empfindsamkeit—the language of heightened sensibility that had its literary roots in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the German poet Klopstock—than the Sonata in A flat, No 46, composed around 1767–8. Beyond any specific influence, this beautiful work reflects the striking intensification of Haydn’s musical idiom in the years immediately following his elevation to full Kapellmeister at the Esterházy court in 1766. Opening with a typically empfindsamer theme, irregularly phrased and characterized by delicate ornaments and sighing appoggiaturas, the first movement surpasses all its predecessors in scale, expressive richness and variety of rhythm and texture. As so often in Haydn’s earlier sonatas, the central section is more a free fantasia than a true development, though here the exhilarating toccata-like figuration sweeps through an unusually adventurous spectrum of keys.

For the Adagio, Haydn moves to the subdominant, D flat major, an outré key in the eighteenth century and one never used by Mozart. With the extreme tonality goes a peculiar intimacy of expression: from the delicate contrapuntal opening, with the bass descending passacaglia-style, this is one of the most subtle and poetic of all Haydn’s slow movements. The polyphonic and chromatic enrichment of the main theme in the development suggests not so much C P E as J S Bach at his most inward; and Haydn opens up further strange harmonic vistas in the coda. With its catchy, quicksilver main theme, the compact sonata-form finale provides a glorious physical release. Yet for all its exuberance this is no mere frothy romp. The darting semiquaver figuration always has a strong sense of direction, above all in the powerful chromatic sequences just before the recapitulation.

The other A flat sonata here, No 43, published in London in 1783 but almost probably composed a decade or so earlier, is a far slighter work. Indeed, with the autograph lost, some commentators have even doubted the sonata’s authenticity. If it is by Haydn, it shows the composer at his most blithely galant. The monothematic first movement has a certain amiable charm but none of Haydn’s usual sense of adventure or delight in surprise. Next comes a minuet that contrasts the mock-military dotted rhythms of the main part with a flowing, almost Schubertian Ländler trio. The most vividly Haydnesque movement is the racy Presto finale, a characteristic amalgam of rondo and variations. Near the end the main theme acquires a slightly zany twist with unscripted leaps to a higher octave.

Two of the sonatas in this programme, Nos 23 and 24, come from the set of six composed in 1773 and printed the following year—the first authorized publication of any of Haydn’s works—with a judicious dedication to his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. Haydn was careful to tailor these predominantly lightweight pieces to the taste—and the technique—of the flourishing amateur market. The tone is, again, essentially galant. But there is more Haydnesque inventiveness and drama than in the A flat sonata, No 43. The crisp opening movement of the F major, No 23, again trading mainly on scintillating toccata-style figuration, is enriched by sudden dips to the minor mode. Between this and the gamesome finale—a sonata-form movement that varies and develops its contredanse theme with characteristic guile—comes a rhapsodic F minor siciliano: music that surely influenced Mozart in his F major sonata, K280, of 1775, though unlike Mozart’s siciliano it relies less on melody than on dreamy figuration and richly expressive harmony.

The first movement of the D major sonata, No 24, in 3/4 time, is an athletic, tautly developed piece, alternating wiry, two-part writing with brilliant toccata sequences. At the start of the development Haydn intensifies the main theme in a series of canonic imitations. The D minor Adagio opens with a dolefully hesitant theme over a Baroque-style repeated-note accompaniment—a peculiarly Haydnesque blend of pathos and austerity—before growing more floridly expressive. Following the example of many of Emanuel Bach’s slow movements, Haydn then lets the music dissolve into the mercurial Presto finale. This takes the form of a gracefully syncopated theme, an airy variation that makes even greater play with syncopation, and what promises to be a reprise of the theme before a pause on an alien chord mischievously derails the listener’s expectations.

With the sonata No 32, one of a group of six published privately in manuscript copies in 1776, we move from inspired galanterie to the vehement astringency characteristic of Haydn’s music in B minor (compare the string quartets Op 33 No 1 and Op 64 No 2). In his later works Haydn preferred a cheerful, major-mode resolution in his minor-keyed movements. Here, though, the recapitulations of the fiercely concentrated outer movements remain grimly in the minor throughout; and what had seemed brilliant or (in the first movement’s dancing triplets) even skittish in the exposition subsequently acquires a tense, anxious edge. The finale, with its obsessively pounding theme—the mainspring of virtually all the musical action—and weird, unsettling silences, is perhaps Haydn’s most violent sonata movement, culminating in a laconic coda that thunders out the theme in stark octave unison. Amid this turbulence, the dulcet, long-spanned central minuet in B major, in effect a surrogate slow movement, provides harmonic balm, with its darkly agitated B minor trio evoking the mood of the sonata as a whole.

One of Haydn’s few pre-London sonatas to have entered the popular repertoire is the D major, No 37, from the set of six published by the Viennese firm of Artaria in 1780. The sonatas were dedicated to the talented sisters Franziska and Maria Katherina von Auenbrugger, whose playing in aristocratic salons drew the admiration of both Leopold Mozart—never one to dish out compliments lightly—and Haydn himself. The D major’s popularity is easy to understand. The first movement, with its irrepressible, chirruping main theme, evokes the spirit of Domenico Scarlatti at his most dashing within the dynamic of the Classical sonata style. At the centre of the development Haydn offsets the prevailing mood of jocularity with a powerful sequence of suspensions. The Largo e sostenuto, in D minor, is especially striking: a grave, sonorously scored sarabande, archaic in flavour, with a suggestion of a Baroque French overture in its dotted rhythms and imitative contrapuntal textures. Like the slow movement of No 24, it leads without a break into the finale, a guileless rondo marked innocentemente and built around a fetching tune that could have been whistled on any Viennese street corner.

During the 1780s Haydn’s production of solo keyboard music fell off sharply, partly because of lucrative foreign commissions (most famously The Seven Last Words and the Paris symphonies), partly because of his renewed absorption in the string quartet and the piano trio. Between the Auenbrugger sonatas and the first London visit of 1791 Haydn wrote no more than a handful of sonatas, among them the triptych of two-movement works (Nos 40–42) published by the firm of Bossler in 1784. These were dedicated—perhaps as a wedding gift—to the sixteen-year-old Princess Marie Hermenegild Esterházy, who the previous year had married the future Prince Nikolaus II, destined to be Haydn’s last Esterházy patron.

Reviewing the sonatas in 1785, Cramer’s Magazin der Musik noted that they were ‘more difficult to perform than one initially believes. They demand the utmost precision, and much delicacy in performance.’ For all their surface lightness, all three are sophisticated, subtly wrought works. Allegretto innocentemente is the marking for the first movement of No 40, a set of alternating major–minor variations (a favourite form in Haydn’s later works) in a lilting, pastoral 6/8 metre. But unlike the finale of No 37, the innocence is not to be taken quite at face value. Even at the opening Haydn disturbs the bucolic idyll with offbeat sforzando accents (smoothed out in most nineteenth-century editions); and there are further disruptive accents in the contrasting G minor theme, with its broken, sighing phrases and tense harmonies. The finale likewise trades on variations and major–minor contrasts, though here the mood is one of quixotic humour. The madcap opening theme, highly irregular in its phrasing, leaps absurdly down three octaves at its first cadences and then plunges to a surprise key (B flat after D major) for a miniature development of the theme (this whole first section has the outline of a miniature sonata form). After a syncopated contrapuntal episode in E minor, the main theme returns with renewed glee, elaborately, almost zanily embellished.

The boldly assertive opening Allegro of No 41 is the only movement in the three Marie Esterházy sonatas in full sonata form. Its second group of themes begins with a radical reinterpretation of the first before moving to F minor for a new, restlessly modulating theme over an Alberti-style bass. As in the finale of No 40, the development immediately dips a major third to a relatively distant key (here D flat after F)—a favourite dramatic ploy of Haydn’s in the 1780s and 1790s. Almost before we have got our bearings, the music swerves abruptly to an equally surprising E flat major for a restatement of the main theme. Haydn follows this Allegro with a movement both mercurial and tautly worked, often freely contrapuntal in texture. Its form (ABA, with the ‘A’ section playfully varied on its reprise) is akin to the finale of No 40, though here the central section, in B flat minor, begins as a free paraphrase of the opening.

It is a far cry from these delectable lightweight works composed for amateur domestic performance to the large-scale sonatas written during Haydn’s second London visit of 1794–5 for the professional pianist Therese Jansen (c1770–1843). Born in Aachen, Jansen became a star pupil of Clementi’s after her move to England. Haydn warmly admired her playing, composing for her not only the sonatas Nos 50 and 52 (possibly, too, the slighter D major, No 51) but also three of his greatest piano trios, Nos 27–29. In May 1795 he was a witness at her wedding, in St James’s Piccadilly, to the picture dealer Gaetano Bartolozzi, son of the famous engraver Francesco Bartolozzi.

The first movement of the C major, No 50—probably the last of Haydn’s sonatas—is a ne plus ultra of thematic concentration, a brilliant, extrovert counterpart to the strenuous ‘Fifths’ Quartet, Op 76 No 2. It opens with a bald, staccato theme, virtually unharmonized and typically irregular in phrase structure—a vision of dry bones. Haydn immediately repeats and elaborates the theme, initially with full, rolling chords (presaging the orchestral style of much of the writing), then with hints of two-part counterpoint that will have significant consequences later. This single fertile idea reappears, contrapuntally enriched, as a ‘second subject’ (with the theme initially in the bass), and is treated with endless resource in the harmonically breathtaking development. The development’s climax comes with the famous ‘open pedal’ passage, where the once-bare theme is transformed into something rich and strange in the remote key of A flat. What Haydn seems to have envisaged here was not the sustaining pedal, as is sometimes assumed, but the una corda (i.e. soft) pedal available on the new Broadwood instruments but rarely found on contemporary Continental pianos. In the recapitulation the theme attains its lyrical apotheosis with another, more extended ‘open pedal’ passage, now ethereal rather than darkly mysterious.

After a poetically embellished, quasi-improvisatory Adagio in F—a rhapsodic meditation such as we find in many of the late piano trios—the finale is a candidate for the most subversively comic piece that even Haydn ever wrote. A scherzo in all but name, it continually baffles with its lopsided phrases (the quirky main theme consists of five plus two bars), outrageous sudden silences and disorienting feints to absurdly remote keys that, unlike Haydn’s usual practice, remain arbitrary and unexplained to the end.

Remote tonal relationships are also a prime feature of the noble, almost symphonic E flat Sonata, No 52, Haydn’s grandest and most spacious work for the piano. Here, though, they are integrated into a boldly comprehensive design. Haydn sets the slow movement in the far-flung ‘Neapolitan’ key of E major. But he is careful to flag this audacious move during the massive opening Allegro moderato, a movement as rich in diverse ideas as the C major’s was economical. At the heart of the development the music pauses rhetorically on a deep, full chord of G major, leading the ear to expect a resolution to C minor. But Haydn has other ideas; and with an effect at once startling, witty and poetic, the flippant second theme prances in in the quite alien key of E major. Having conjured this luminous, strangely unreal vision, Haydn then spirits the music back to the home key E flat and the recapitulation via a wonderful gliding chromatic sequence. There is another, more fleeting presentiment of the key of the Adagio near the end of the movement. Here a phrase in soft, bare octaves from the exposition is chromatically expanded, creating a mysterious phrase replete with double flats that could be rewritten enharmonically in E major.

Like the slow movement of No 50, the Adagio suggests a fantasia in its rhapsodic, richly ornamented style. But it is a more varied, far-reaching piece, more sonorously scored and more audacious in its harmony—as when the tonality veers dramatically towards a remote C major in the second half of the theme. A central episode in E minor develops the theme’s initial dotted phrase in music by turns stark and airily whimsical. Haydn has another tonal surprise up his sleeve at the start of the finale. After the E major Adagio, the unharmonized repeated Gs lead the ear to expect E minor; and when a sustained bass note in bar two establishes the key of E flat, we experience a sense of pleasurable shock. The whole movement is the consummation of Haydn’s Scarlatti-influenced toccata style, developing its irrepressible main theme with dazzling verve and chromatic sleight-of-hand: a coruscating ending to a work that, if not quite his last sonata, gloriously crowns a genre that Haydn, more than anyone, had raised from lightweight, divertimento origins to a status comparable with the exalted symphony and the string quartet.

Richard Wigmore © 2007

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