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HAYDN: Six Piano Sonatas – Einav Yarden, p. – Challenge

J. HAYDN: Six Piano Sonatas – Einav Yarden, p. – Challenge multichannel SACD 72742, 62:30 (10/14/16) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

A dazzling tour of lesser known, middle-period Haydn Sonatas.

The Haydn piano recitals continue to roll out, and we are the luckier for it. It was once common to view these sonatas as student pieces useful as preparation for the serious Beethoven repertoire. But in our generation, the great pianists, starting from Alfred Brendel, have established Haydn’s more private chamber works as unsurpassed masterpieces within the Classical style that he himself created. The typical approach to a one-disc Haydn performance is to select heavily from the masterpieces from his last period. These works, say from Sonata No. 49 up through the ultimate No. 60, are grander in scale and demonstratively public. They are meant for the concert halls of London or Paris rather than than the private chambers of the Esterhazy court.  These works have established their place on the modern concert hall stage, too, and stand up to any appassionata sonata or Schubert piece in terms of durability and appeal.

What we have in this outstanding disc under review is a selection of lesser-known works from an especially fertile period in Haydn’s career: the years between 1773 and 1776. He had recently emerged from his musical laboratory with a most consequential invention: the string quartet. He was busy on a daily basis turning out for his patron Baryton trios which allowed his musical fantasy full reign. The Opus 33 set of quartets that so inspired Mozart were just around the corner. During this middle period at Esterhazy, the composer  was not only prodigious in artistic invention but also busy in a dozen other musical roles as the courts reliable factotum. In a plausible reimagining of the composer’s life, a fine contemporary writer has even constructed a tale in which Haydn plays the the unlikely role of detective, solving crimes and untangling intrigues at the Esterhazy court (A Minor Deception by Nupur Tustin).

Israeli pianist Einav Arden released a CD in 2013 called Oscillations, which featured Stravinsky piano works balanced against two early Beethoven sonatas that shared the closest affinity with the Haydn style. That recording bore witness to a superb technician and intelligent interpreter of the literature. This recording also highlights these gifts and favors her artistry with superbly warm and transparent Super Audio sound from Challenge Classics.

Ms. Arden navigates between the fluid improvisatory passages and the famous “witty discourse” of the many clever subjects and their modulations. The latter is communicated most ably with the keenest attention to rhythmic finesse and ornamentation. The key of E-flat major certainly brought out the best of Haydn’s inspiration; the third Sonata on offer here, no. 40 Hob. XVI:25 is replete with lovely idea and complexities that are knitted up in the brilliant Minuet.

No. 41 reminds us of how often Haydn’s initial Allegros are stated moderato as if this is the tempo conduces best to musical intellection. After the grand first movement, we get the most cursory Menuet al rovescio and breakneck presto, both adding up to less than 2:30. In the later sonatas Haydn would correct these imbalances; no longer would a listener turning to his neighbor for a piece of gossip be in danger of missing an entire movement.

Following another thoughtful Moderato on No. 46, we get heap of lively melodic and harmonic cleverness, but we might find ourselves pondering why Haydn was disinclined to essay a real adagio. Perhaps it still required a Mozart to come along and show the possibilities of this.

The last sonata on the disc, No. 47, is justifiably well-known and shows up regularly on many recent recordings. It is undoubtably a masterpiece and well above anything by Mozart in the genre. Moreover, it makes greater demands on the pianist skills at prestidigitation. On the famous, Finale/Presto, Ms. Yarden, after a recital on which she was quite moderate in all her tempo readings, really lets herself go. Up early out of the blocks, she scissors around the track with feet barely touching the ground. At the finish line her time of 3:13 looks unbeatable. For comparison, on John McCabe’s legendary recording (from an earlier era) which finishes at 3:33, the winner is panting heavily at finish line and waving to the crowd while he has still not rounded the last bend.  We stand in great appreciation of the pianist superb articulation and also the composers’ playful representation of controlled velocity.

This is a very fine addition to the Haydn repertoire. If the sound is merely unremarkably good for a SACD, the playing is stupendous. I predict more great things from this young Israeli artist. Presumably another run at Haydn is in the offing, or following the logic of this recording, an investigation of lesser known D. Scarlatti.

TrackList: Sonata no. 44 in F major; Sonata no 39. In D major; Sonata no. 40 in e-flat major’ Sonata no. 41 in A major; Sonata no. 46 in E major; Sonata no. 47 in B minor

—Fritz Balwit

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