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Franz Joseph HAYDN. Piano Sonatas (volume 1) nos. 21, 44, 45, 16, 39, 32—Roman Rabinovich (piano)—First Hand Records FHR 071—101:00, ****1/2

The young pianist Roman Rabinovich appears to be at the start of a multi-volume recording of Haydn’s piano sonatas, seven included here across two discs. Included in the notes for this first installment are a number of interesting facets of Haydn’s life which I found prepared me for listening, and also presumably function as the artist’s own preparation in better understanding Haydn’s musical language. For instance, I did not know that Haydn’s first real notice as a musician came as a singer, and he was recommended to become a castrato! Important for all of us, I think, is the reminder that Haydn’s musical journey began before Mozart’s but that he was still active after Mozart’s death.

The sound world of Haydn was of course different than the one produced by a modern Steinway grand, the instrument used in this recording. The sound captured on this recording, however, is a very rewarding one. The engineers managed to get a very delicious piano sound. Despite this achievement, I wanted to discuss how appropriate this sound is for the music. Specifically, the choice of instrument and the acoustical space for the sonatas.

Knowing that some of these pieces may originally have been conceived for the harpsichord, and most certainly, in the later works, for the fortepiano, there is something lost, I think, in choosing to perform this repertoire on a modern instrument. As a case in point, it is difficult to not hear the novelty in the final presto of the B minor sonata, #32. The repetitive phrase that opens the piece keeps coming back, building upon itself, and I can’t help but marvel at Haydn’s writing in the way he was taking advantage of a new instrument that could capitalize upon his writing. To be fair, this feature of the movement is not ignored by Rabinovich, but the tension is not quite as tight. The same might be said for a Scarlatti sonata on the piano: the ones with the repeated crunchy chords in the right hand only make sense on a period instrument.

I will also draw attention for the type of space these works are performed.  The melodic invention and rapid notes of the G major sonata’s opening, #39, is somewhat smeared in the reverberant environment captured in the recording. This sonata seems to have a very personal flavor to it, perhaps even serving as a pedagogical resource. The middle adagio is far more successful in this sound space. The delicacy of this piece might be better served in a smaller space. While I typically audition new recordings on headphones, I also auditioned this one using conventional loudspeakers and found the effect less pronounced without the headphones.

These are small quibbles in what is otherwise a technically-ripe recording. The Presto from the E-flat Divertimento, or the similarly-styled finale to the G major sonata, #39, are showpieces for Rabinovich’s superb control.

It was obvious when watching a video of Rabinovich discussing Haydn that he has been afforded the luxury of getting to know these pieces in a particularly personal way. He remarks about having the opportunity to better understand the man through his music. And there is a nakedness to these pieces, especially, say, the Allegretto of the G minor sonata, #44: at the heart of the piece is a two-voiced, melody-driven exposition that is afforded, to my ears, the right amount of dynamic depth. The music isn’t simple, but it affords us a very lucid impression of Haydn that perhaps is lost by the time we get to his later symphonies.

My reservations for creating a historical perspective for performance in the choice of instruments and recording spaces aside, I’m very excited for the continuation of this recital of Haydn’s piano sonatas by Roman Rabinovich.  The energy and enthusiasm held by the artist for this music, his technical and emotive gifts, and the overall sound are all noteworthy.

While I had a very favorable impression of the recent recording (Haydn Sonatas, Volume 2) by Anne-Marie McDermott, her recording, like this one, includes sonata #39. A comparison reveals a superior piano sound with Rabinovich; the distance of the instrument from the microphones is greater with Rabinovich as well. For headphone listening, I found Rabinovich’s recording to be easier on the ears, the piano sound less strident. Otherwise, they are two versions of otherwise excellent playing of Haydn on modern piano.

— Sebastian Herrera

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