HAYDN: Piano Sonatas Not. 3l, 33, 47 & 58 – John O’Conor, p. – Steinway

by | Jan 9, 2017 | Classical CD Reviews

John O’Conor deftly brings out the variety and infinite charm of five Haydn sonatas. 

HAYDN: Piano Sonata No. 47 in b; Piano Sonata No. 38 in F Major; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A-flat Major; Piano Sonata No. 33 in c; Piano Sonata No. 58 in C Major – John O’Conor, p. – Steinway & Sons 30058, 69:51 (11/20/16) [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Irish piano virtuoso John O’Conor (b. 1947) has assembled a delectable group of five Haydn sonatas, composed 1767 and 1789, that display his thorough knowledge of keyboard technique and his infinite capacity for musical invention.  Each of the sonatas basks in any number of variations in the course of its development, a brilliant testimony to a musical imagination in ceaseless experiment with the instrument at hand and its ability to generate sensuous form. O’Conor opens with the 1776 Sonata in b minor, one of a set published as the composer’s Op. 14. While something of Scarlatti begins the procession, the writing becomes what one scholar, H.C. Robbins Landon, calls more “expressionistic.” Sojourns into major and minor modes alternate, all accompanied by O’Conor’s jeu perle tones on his chosen Steinway instrument. At several points, the bass tones resonate with an authority that anticipates that Bonn demon, Beethoven. The galant Menuet could be mistaken as the work of Mozart, its florid intimacy exacting a measure of tragic awareness. The middle section variants embrace fully-sonorous, “romantic” tones, especially in the bass line. The Presto finale indulges in double notes and syncopation that suggests a toccata by someone cognizant of Frescobaldi. Scalar patterns versus arpeggio eddies command our attention throughout, mixed with a deft, light hand by Maestro O’Conor.

The 1773 Sonata No. 38 in F counts among its rarer recordings one by the late Geza Anda.  It becomes evident from O’Conor’s fleet rendition what a variety of charms beguiles the adept virtuoso. The various motions and gestures of the major theme groups dazzle with their often breathless energy; and the application of competing touches challenges the most seasoned performer. The second movement Adagio generates an aura entirely its own, mysterious as it is sensual. Haydn might well beckon to Chopin to try to surpass him in ornamental intimacy. The brief Presto here rings a bit more conventionally, but no less brilliantly for its harmonic predictability. The theme could easily apply to a symphonic context, in the manner of the finale from Symphony No. 88. Juxtaposed against the F Major comes the earliest and one of the more expansive of the set, No. 31 in A-flat Major (1767). Lyrically broad in conception, the work has been designated a “divertimento” as well as sonata. The sonata-form of the opening Allegro moderato embraces a lengthy development section, likely an extension of Baroque binary-form practice such as hear from Galuppi. The actual arpeggio figures more than once resound with figures we recall from Bach’s B-flat Major Partita. The central Adagio Haydn sets in D-flat Major. A model of contrapuntal invention, His playing both dolce and espessivo, O’Conor moves in three and four-part counterpoint, with much of the sound deliberately antique and transparent.  The finale eschews the usual rondo for a sonata-form Allegro, in which a virtuoso coda will supply the “missing” bolt of lightning.  Here, the competing scalar passages over a constant bass figure finally locate A-flat upon which to conclude with feathery roulades.

The Sonata in c minor of 1771 has the honor of having the first designation of “sonata” rather than “partita.” The emotional tenor of the opening movement Moderato seems passionate and stormy, befitting the sturm und drang sensibility. Sighs and rhetorical gestures abound; but even more elusive lies the actual key of the second subject which gravitates into E-flat and B-flat between episodes of horseback rides or Aeolian forays from the piano-as-harp. The sudden chromatic jumps, along with the plethora ornaments, like mordents, occupy our beguiled ears. The slow movement moves in extended cantabile motion in A-flat Major. The intrusion of syncopated elements once more hints at Scarlatti, especially as the ornaments become more florid. Most audacious and experimental, the Finale – Presto has a field day on the harmonic campus, although its primary affect remains ostensibly tragic.  Eminently restless, the music varies its momentum and its moods. The tripping figure that opens O’Conor’s voyage here begins to explore volcanic runs and edgy harmonies. The formal structure of the last part of the movement becomes nebulous, with the development and the recapitulation’s having blurred into one another. Light, crisp, and articulate, O’Conor’s reading grips us with an emfindsamkeit work that never ceases to challenge our expectations.

Haydn’s 1789 two-movement Sonata No. 58 in C seems a throwback to the galant style of C.P.E. Bach, the Andante con espessivo at first virtually monothematic, progressing in short bursts of notes and their ornaments, marked by strong arpeggios at the cadence. O’Conor’s right hand supplies an ornamental, stylized recitative. The whole progress – harmonically to A-flat and a minor – retrospectively, would seem apt for late Beethoven. The scales and runs become elongated, but still moving as variants of the original motif. The ensuing Rondo – Presto returns to the witty verve that marks the Haydn sensibility, rife with sudden, jarring accents and shifts of register. The rustic element in the expression once more points to the finale of Symphony No. 88. A brisk nonchalance and ease of method lets us know that composer and executant share a mutually gifted aplomb. Kudos as well to audio engineer Daniel Shores.

—Gary Lemco


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