In 2007, the virtuoso pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin released a two-CD compilation of ten piano sonatas by Haydn. The recording received widespread critical acclaim. It became a best-seller for Hyperion, the British record label. The CD also received attention from the Amazon reviewing community with a wide-range of thoughtful reviews. Most listeners, myself included, loved Hamelin's Haydn. But some listeners found his readings idiosyncratic, played too quickly and with too much focus on Hamelin's astounding technique. The best way to judge Hamelin's Haydn is to hear it for oneself. I continue to be awed.
Hyperion has now issued a second volume of Hamelin playing Haydn. This new release includes nine new sonatas, the sonata-length "Variations in f minor" and a short Fantasia for good measure. Undoubtedly, the reception of Hamelin's first Haydn release and the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Haydn's death celebrated this year (1732 - 1809) helped inspire this new release. But the main attraction is the scope and breadth of Haydn's music for the piano. Although it has been frequently recorded, Haydn's piano music has never received its due. This double CD, together with its predecessor, will awaken many listeners who know Haydn as a symphonist and composer of string quartets to Haydn as a composer for the piano.
In my own celebration of Haydn, I have been reviewing the individual CDs in a ten-CD compilation on Naxos of the sonatas by Jeno Jando. But I put this project on hold, briefly, to hear Hamelin. These performances are stunning in their sheer joy, brilliance, and eclat. They also capture the reflective, tragic side of the composer that is frequently overlooked. Many of Haydn's sonatas were written as teaching pieces. At some level, they can be performed by aspiring pianists of varying attainment. To have them played by a performer of world-class power and technique might seem like overkill. Hamelin's musicianship is at least the equal of his technique and he gives us a Haydn that is seldom heard elsewhere: idiomatic, humorous, varied, beautifully articulated, but powerful.
Of Haydn's 60-odd piano sonatas (numbers vary), roughly half were composed for the harpsichord. Hamelin's first release included two or three early works but its focus was on Haydn's compositions for piano. This CD consists exclusively of works Haydn wrote with the piano in mind. For me, the major attractions on this recording were two late Haydn sonatas, in C major, Hob. 48 and in E-flat major, Hob. 49. It is difficult not to be reminded of Beethoven's debt to Haydn in hearing this broad-scaled sonatas. The C major sonata is in two movements, with a slow meditative opening that passes between C major and minor, and a rapid, flamboyant, almost orchestral concluding movement. The E-flat major sonata's opening movement reminded me of one of Beethoven's lesser-known sonatas, opus 22 in B-flat major, which I have been learning. It is a rambunctious, strongly rhythmical movement based on a fluttering four-note phrase. The second movement of the E flat major sonata, especially in its middle section, is one of the most passionate, ardent pieces Haydn ever wrote. The work concludes with a rondo which succeeds in lightening the dramatic tension of the earlier movements.
Other highlights of this CD include the two minor-key works, the f minor variations and the e minor sonata, Hob. 34. The former was among Haydn's last compositions for the piano and is based on contrasting themes in F major and f minor. The variations work to a high degree of intensity at their conclusion. The e-minor sonata includes a tragic, stark opening movement, an embellished slow movement, and a contrasting finale appropriately marked "innocentemente". Hamelin's readings of the Sonata in C major, Hob.35, with has been compared with Mozart's famous "sonata facile" in the same key, and of the Sonata in G major Hob 39 also warrant particular mention in this recording filled with outstanding Haydn.
As did its predecessor, this release includes detailed, scholarly notes by Richard Wigmore on each of the sonatas. The 2 CD set also sells for the price of a single Hyperion CD, making it accessible to many listeners. This set and its predecessor will provide inexhaustible delight for listeners who know or who want to get to know Haydn's piano music.