HAYDN: Piano Sonatas and Variations = Lars Haugbro, fortepiano ‒ LAWO

HAYDN: Piano Sonatas and Variations = Sonata in F Major, Hob. XVI:29; Andante and Variations in F Minor, Hob. XVII:6; Sonata in C Minor, Hob. XVI:20; Sonata in C Major, Hob. XVI:50 ‒ Lars Haugbro, fortepiano ‒ LAWO LWC1094; 67:46 (5/6/16) *****:

A nicely-varied recital from a Scandinavian Haydn specialist.

B01AB6UNWM Despite the highly evocative cover photo, this album is not all storms-a-brewing. However, two of the works on this varied program tap into the darker side of Haydn, one not often encountered since his latest, greatest works are usually in a sunny major mode. Of Haydn’s late large-scale compositions, consider that his greatest symphonic creations, the twelve London Symphonies, include only one work in a minor key, Symphony No. 95 in c. It is perhaps the least admired of the twelve, and as to its key signature, critics generally conclude that here Haydn is more interested in the minor key as a matter of sonority than as a matter of spiritual-emotional context, as it was in the great c minor works of Mozart and Beethoven.

Then again, in that same decade we have the marvelous Lord Nelson Mass, or Missa in Angustiis, written during the frightening early years of the Napoleonic Wars. Here, the minor key—and Haydn’s austere scoring for an orchestra of strings, trumpets, drums, and organ only—creates a work of great emotional depth and tension. So, too, the soberly beautiful Andante and Variations in f, subtitled Sonata, un piccolo divertimento. Like a number of Haydn’s works in theme-and-variations form (maybe the most famous being the slow movement of the Symphony 103), it is a double variation, featuring a somber theme in F minor followed by a darting, capricious tune in F major. The two undergo a series of highly inventive variations culminating in a coda of simple F-major resolve. Except—somewhere along the way, Haydn decided to rework his upbeat, almost throwaway conclusion, returning to the home key of F minor and penning an anguished pendant to the work. It begins with a wildly rocking accompaniment in the left hand, then explodes in a series of frenzied arpeggios and dissonant chords, finally subsiding in quiet acquiescence. Scholars have theorized that this new conclusion was a tribute to a friend and possible love interest of Haydn, the amateur pianist Maria Anna von Genziger, who died aged forty-two in 1793.

Of course, the period when Haydn fully exploited the emotional possibilities of the minor key coincided with the Sturm und Drang movement in European art, and the composer contributed notable masterworks to the movement, including his Farewell and Mourning Symphonies, both from 1772. From the same time period is Haydn’s Sonata No. 33 in c (Hob. XVI:20), notably his only piano sonata in that key. The outer movements are typically troubled, even tragic in character, but the real gem here is the extended slow movement, calm but hardly serene, with an undercurrent of melancholy longing. It’s a lovely sonata quite atypical in Haydn’s canon.

The Sonata No. 44 in F Major (Hob. XVI:29), one of a set of six composed in 1776, represents the more familiar Haydn, smiling and confident. It was probably written with the burgeoning corps of amateur middle-class keyboardists of the day in mind, and while it has few technical or emotional complications, it is a fine work of Haydn’s maturity.

Equally smiling and confident is the Sonata No. 60 in C Major (Hob. XVI:50), written in 1795 during Haydn’s second sojourn in England and dedicated to another friend, Theresa Bartolozzi, one of the finest pianists in Europe at the time. Not only does it come from the period of Haydn’s greatest creativity but includes perhaps the composer’s most virtuosic writing for solo piano. Again, the slow movement is one of Haydn’s finest, mostly serene, but with episodes that hint at emotional unease.

Besides the inherent variety in this program, Norwegian Haydn specialist Lars Haugbro offers a brief tutorial on the use of the fortepiano in Haydn’s solo music. He notes that the earlier Sonatas No. 33 and 44 were probably written for either harpsichord or fortepiano, though the score of Sonata No. 33 contains dynamic markings f>p, which would have been impossible on a harpsichord. So Haydn was thinking in more pianistic terms at this point in his career. Clearly, the great works of the 1790s were conceived for pianoforte and are grand enough to make a splash on the grandest of modern pianos, though they sound wonderfully well on Haugbro’s chosen instrument from the workshop of Paul McNulty and based on an Anton Walter fortepiano c. 1810. Mozart’s favorite piano bore the Walter name, and this copy of a later model is perfectly suited to Haydn’s works.

For me, Lars Haugbro captures the varied emotions in these works well, and his execution, especially in the more demanding pieces of the 1790s, is both forceful and nuanced. The slow movements have dignity and refinement, the allegros real dash. While most of these pieces are well-loved and much recorded, fine performances on fortepiano are hardly legion, and again, Haugbro’s programming makes this a most interesting disc. An excellent recording as well, set down in an Oslo church. Recommended!

—Lee Passarella

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