The Well-Tempered Ear

Haydn’s Piano Sonatas: Marc-Andre Hamelin scores a grand slam home run—again

October 17, 2009

By Jacob Stockinger

The Haydn Year – 2009 is the bicentennial of his death – is winding down. Haydnpiano

But some fine recordings are still coming out.

One of the notable new ones is Marc-Andre Hamelin’s Haydn Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Hyperion). It’s a specially priced 2-CD set that features from through Haydn’s long career.  I’m especially partially to early “Storm-and-Stress” ones like the Sonata in E Minor and B minor, which show Haydn emotional side, the late sonatas in C major, D major and E-flat, which show Haydn’s inventiveness and the compositional method that so influenced his student, Beethoven. Hamelin haydncover

Hamelin’s playing is crisp and clear, and in the spirit of Haydn, filled with wit and feeling, though not with distortion. Haydn’s music shows leftover effects from the Baroque (Sonata in E Major) and anticipates Romantic in places (Variations in F Minor). But Papa Haydn, after all, was the arch-classicist who pretty much invented the string quartet, the symphony, the piano trio and the piano sonata.

The Canada-born, Rutgers-educated Hamelin (below) is known as the “super-virtuoso” – a moniker he is said to disdain—who can play more notes faster and more clearly than anyone else. Only Maurizio Pollini’s fingers rival his, I would guess, for mastering the sheer mechanics of piano playing. Hamelin

Over the past two decades Hamelin has recorded out-of-the way composers (Alkan, Sorabji, Godowsky) and compositions.

But lately he had put his virtuosity in the service of more mainstream music, including Chopin and Brahms as well as Haydn, in this new release and in the equally laudable first first 2-CD set of Haydn’s piano sonatas.

This is marvelous playing, a not-miss recording. The Ear gives it 5 stars.

What’s is also interesting is that Haydn’s piano sonatas are becoming more mainstream. In fact, at times they seem to be eclipsing Mozart’s solo piano sonatas as recital staples. Could it be because Haydn’s sonatas offer more variety and substance, even they are generally less singing,  than most of the Mozart’s 19 solo sonatas?

There are other noteworthy recordings of Haydn piano sonatas, many of which I love, including a 4-CD set by Alfred Brendel (Philips), a 2-CD set by Andras Schiff (Teldec), 3 CDs by Emanuel Ax (Sony BMG), several CDs by Sviatoslav Richter  (Decca and Deutsche Grammophon) and complete sets by Jeno Jando (Naxos) and Rudolf Buchbinder (Teldec).

Do you know the Hamelin’s Haydn recordings? What do you thing of them?

Are there other recordings of Haydn piano sonatas you prefer?

What do think of Haydn’s piano sonatas compared to Mozart’s? Do you have favorite ones?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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