The recent six CD set of the complete Haydn concertos on Naxos has given me the opportunity to hear some outstanding artists including the romantic cellist Maria Kliegel, the young violinist Augustin Hadelich and, in this CD, the German pianist Sebastian Knauer. Knauer's (b. 1971) teachers included Andras Schiff, Christoph Eschenbach, and Alex Weissburg. Knauer has been building an enviable concert and recording career with recent recordings of Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Mozart, among other composers. He also has a flair for Haydn's keyboard concertos. His first concerto performance at the age of 13 was in Hamburg of the Haydn D major. Recently, in the summer of 2009, Knauer organized a concert cycle called "Haydn Pure" in Bamberg, which featured a variety of works by Haydn familiar and unfamiliar, including the keyboard concertos.
In this CD, Knauer performs four Haydn keyboard concertos with Helmut Muller-Bruhl and the Cologne Chamber Orchestra. Although he plays on a modern piano, these are light, spirited and period-informed readings. This CD, released in 2007, is available individually or, as mentioned earlier, as part of a six CD set of Haydn concertos on Naxos.
There are nine surviving Haydn keyboard concertos, with the first five performed on harpsichord and organ on an earlier CD in this Naxos series. Haydn: Keyboard Concertos The earlier CD includes concertos Haydn wrote in the late 1750s. This CD includes three concertos Haydn composed during 1765-1770 early in his service at Esterhazy. It also includes Haydn's famous D major concerto, with which Knauer began his career, composed in 1784.
The three Esterhazy concertos are composed in an early classical style. Thus the opening movements begin with an orchestral introduction followed by the entrance of the soloist and the development of the musical material between orchestra and piano. Even so, Haydn's early concertos would not be mistaken for those of Mozart or Beethoven. They are lovely and enjoyable, but they lack the drama, virtuosic writing, and conflict that later came to dominate the concerto form. For this reason, they are rarely performed.
The earliest concerto in F major features a rather simple solo part. As with Haydn's earlier works, most of the thematic material is given to the pianist's right hand, with the left hand adding to the lower part of the orchestral accompaniment. This concerto features an expressive slow movement, marked "Largo cantabile" in which the soloist, rare in these works, becomes the center of attention with a long, singing theme played throughout the movement over a spare, supportive orchestral accompaniment.
The remaining two early concertos are in G major. The concerto in G major, Hob. XVIII:4 is more complex than its companions with some brilliant keyboard writing in the outer movements. It was composed in about 1770. Haydn scholar Karl Geiringer wrote of this concerto that "the expression of heroic defiance in the first movement proves the closeness of this work to the 'romantic crisis'" [referring to Haydn's Sturm und Drang period]. The slow movement has the lyricism of the F major concerto but it includes much more interplay between the orchestra and the soloist. The work concludes with a lively rondo. The remaining G major concerto, Hob. XVIII:9 may not be authentic. But it too has a lovely slow movement which includes some minor key dramatic writing.
Haydn's most famous piano concerto is the D major composed in 1784. The work is a contemporary of Haydn's cello concerto in the same key. The cello concerto is expansive and symphonic while the D major concerto is lighthearted. Highly popular in Haydn's lifetime, it appeals to modern audiences as well and has been recorded frequently. The opening movement is based on a single theme, introduced by the orchestra and developed thereafter by both the soloist and the orchestra. The second movement, marked "un poco adagio" also develops a simple singing theme. The interplay between soloist and orchestra frequently turns on the repetition of a single repeated note, tossed back and forth between them. The finale of this concerto is a "rondo all'ungarese" which also includes many echoing passages between the pianist and orchestra. Although this movement showcases Haydn's humor, it includes two minor-key episodes near the conclusion which foreshadow later 19th Century romantic music.
Knauer's spirited playing and his reading of the D major concerto are the primary attractions of this CD. The three early concertos will be of most interest to those listeners with a special love for Haydn.