This two-CD set has received a great deal of attention from my fellow Amazon reviewers and elsewhere both for the music and for the performance. Marc-Andre Hamelin offers a virtuoso performance of ten Haydn piano sonatas. I will comment on the performance, but will devote most of this review to the music.
As to Hamelin's performance, I found it idiomatic and expressive. Hamelin has a large technique, and I think he understands this music. He does not sentimentalize it or give the listener the impression it comes from a music box. He shows outstanding control of the varied kinds of touches required by this music, excellent dynamics and phrasing and appropriate use of the pedal. Tempo is a perpetually controversial question in music of the early classical era. I found Hamelin's tempos in the fast movements brought out the character of the music, and they were contrasted well with the sensitive playing in the many beautiful slow movements. I found Hamelin playing offers great insight into Haydn. As with any great music, the readings of any performer, regardless of how gifted, do not constitute the only word.
But the main attraction of this set is the opportunity to hear a large cross-section of Haydn's piano sonatas. Joseph Haydn (1732 -- 1809) composed for solo keyboard throughout his career. His style and compositional skill developed with the years, just as it did with the symphony. Haydn's sonatas show well the development of the classical sonata style and make for highly enjoyable listening. For many years, Haydn was viewed in the shadow of Mozart and Beethoven and not for himself. His piano sonatas, in particular, were undervalued. Happily, this situation has changed.
The sonatas in this compiliation represent Haydn at all his compositional stages with the exception of the earliest, i.e. pre-1766.(The authenticity of these earliest works has been questioned. Listeners wanting to explore them may with to hear Jeno Jando's recording of sonatas 1 -- 10 on Naxos.) Haydn generally wrote his sonatas for students or, in the case of the final works, for virtuoso performers. He did not compose for his own performance, as did Beethoven or Mozart. Richard Wigmore has written unsusually detailed notes for each of the sonatas on these CDs and I found they helped greatly with my understanding of the music. Haydn, in contrast to Mozart, frequently wrote for the piano in a percussive style, which Hamelin brings out well. It is a different approach to the classical sonata which will surprise some new listeners. Haydn makes use of strong syncopated rhythms, frequent counterpoint, and, often, of heavy octaves. His themes tend to be short and brusque and are developed and expanded with repetition and with great use of variation form. C.P.E. Bach is often considered an influence on Haydn's sonatas, but I thought frequently of Scarlatti as I have heard Hamelin and others play this music.
The earliest sonatas in this collection are nos.46 and 43, both of which are in A flat major. They were composed in the late 1760s. The no. 46 in particular is highly improvisatory in character, and Haydn makes the first of what would become many moves of harmonic daring in his keyboard music in the following slow movement. Sonatas 23 and 24, included on this set, are also early works. They were published for Prince Esterhazy and are full of glitter and galantrie. The second movement of no. 23 is a flowing sicilienne which may well have influenced Mozart when he began to compose piano sonatas.
Sonatas 32 and 37 were composed in Haydn's mid-career between 1773 -- 1780. They are radically different from each other. Sonata 32 in B minor (the only minor key work on this program) is a worthy product of what is sometimes called Haydn's sturm und drang period. It consists of music of great tension, force, and intensity. The outer movements are spare and austure and include, in the finale, forceful writing in octaves. The middle movement is a minuet with a stormy trio that complements the outer movements. The sonata no. 37, in contrast, is a more popularly-styled work, with galant outer themes and a moving slow movement.
The remaining four works in this set were composed between 1781 and 1785. Sonatas 40 and 41 are in two movements (as are three other sonatas from this period, 42,48,49, not included here) and show Haydn's continued willingness to experiment and change forms. I especially enjoyed Sonata 40 in G major. It opens with a movement in double variations -- major and minor key alternating -- fetchingly marked "allegretto innocentemente. The second movement is contrasting in its quirkiness, speed, and good humor.
The final two sonatas in the collection are, fittingly, Haydn's final works in the form which are generally regarded as his masterpieces. They were composed during the years Haydn was in London with the second set of "London" symphonies and were written for a professional pianist named Therese Jansen. Sonatas 50 and 52 are difficult to play and almost symphonic in scope. As does much of Haydn, they conceal a great deal of art and skill underneath what appears to be delightfully accessible music. The sonata no. 50 in C major develops a simple, spare theme in many ways over the course of a spacious opening movement. (In the development of this sonata, Haydn gave the only pedal marking he offered in his solo keyboard compositions.) It is followed by a lyrical slow movement and a short, humorous conclusion with pauses, backtracking, and false endings. Sonata no. 52 in E-flat major is a broad spacious work, with an opening movement that develops a variety of themes, in contrast to the single-themed no. 50, a harmonically complex and deeply chordal slow movement, and a virtuosic conclusion.
Those listeners who are new to Haydn's sonatas will get an excellent overview of them in this fine CD.