HAYDN: The Complete Piano Sonatas – Jeno Jando, piano – Naxos 8.501042 (10 CDs), 10:57:18 *****:

The first use of the descriptive word “Sonata” for piano compositions by Haydn was in 1773. Prior to that they were found under the titles “Partita”, “Parthia” and “Divertimento” and functioned primarily as a mixture of light entertainment music  and melodic finger exercises for the talented amateur. What the piano Sonata was to become in the hands of Mozart and especially Beethoven lay in the future. But the genesis of the great Classical and Romantic traditions of piano compositions that mirror the human condition in an often epic emotional struggle between keyboard and artist can be found here.

Listening to Haydn’s 52 surviving piano sonatas one apprehends his slow and steady development as a composer. His growth does not mimic the electrifying rapidity of Mozart’s spectacular development from childhood nor Beethoven’s revolutionary caution-to-the-winds explosive artistic upheaval. It is characteristic of Haydn that he will first completely inhabit a genre before ultimately making it his own. Only then are we treated to increasing evidence of his mastery of the medium with each incremental discovery of its latent possibilities. Haydn cautiously offers us improvements and creative alternatives in each work, steadily moving the genre forward in stages until he finally reveals some fresh artistic paradigm or technical enhancement. Like a newly discovered country whose borders are suddenly visible Haydn offers us a rich new musical destination.

The earliest sonatas are difficult to date since no autograph scores exist but evidence indicates that they were composed before 1766 with some dating perhaps as far back as 1755-1760. Even their authenticity is open to speculation without a sure means of stylistic comparison with compositions definitely written during the period. Haydn later included some of his earliest sonatas in a listing of his works that he himself approved between 1799-1802. Surely this late catalog of his compositions must have tested the memory of the aging and ailing composer. This splendid 10 CD box set of all 52 attributed piano sonatas relies on Christa Landon’s Vienna Urtext Edition.

Haydn’s keyboard sonatas were initially composed for the harpsichord. In these works we hear unmistakable stylistic similarities with the Baroque era sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Their idiosyncratic structure and distinctive interrogative phrasing are echoed in Haydn’s musical terseness. His piano works rely on melodic variety and a constantly shifting textural landscape for their drama. With little or no Classical era sonata form in these works, formal structure is akin to the Baroque era spinning-out of melodies. Haydn’s career coincided with dramatic changes in the keyboard instruments of the era, as the fortepiano and then the pianoforte, now with hammer action and increased dynamic possibilities, replaced the harpsichord with its plucked string limitations. Concurrently, there was a parallel change in formal structure with the development of sonata form. At least 30 of Haydn’s sonatas were intended for the harpsichord so they must be judged by different criteria.

Jeno Jando plays the early sonatas with an eye to the Baroque keyboard style. His phrasing is steady, his rhythm motoric, with terse musical sentences and dynamic forward movement leading to well-defined musical structures. Each piece is crisply outlined: his energetic playing creating drama when it is needed, a quiet sense of repose where drama is inappropriate. Jando is every inch the professional, his years of experience and his muscular playing fill these early Haydn works with vivacious life.

The first sonata that Haydn composed for the fortepiano and not the harpsichord was probably his Sonata No. 33 in C Minor (Hob.XVI:20). The dynamic markings make it clear that it was designed for the fortepiano, an instrument capable of making quick dynamic changes. This opened an entirely new world for piano works. It was written in 1771 and was one of a set of six sonatas published by Artaria in 1780. We can detect the influence of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, with whom Haydn was acquainted in Vienna. There is much use of first subject material in the development, a lengthy passage of Sturm und Drang before the first subject returns in the recapitulation, and a strong sense of drama throughout the piece. These are all characteristic of C. P. E. Bach. There is also a deep prophetic vein permeating this keyboard sonata, offering us a foretaste of the revolutionary path the piano sonata was to take later.

Jando plays this and all of the subsequent sonatas with a refined sense of drama, greater tension in the music’s rhetorical framework, and a questing, probing musical style that facilitates the search for meaning concealed amongst this music’s many mysteries. Both meaning and mysteries remain forever elusive, artfully camouflaged behind Haydn’s often blithe and cheerful mask. Nevertheless, Jando engages in a musical struggle with the evanescent forces permeating this music. The future of the piano sonata is glimpsed in these late works; especially when we listen to Haydn’s final three sonatas – composed in 1794-95 – where we can sense the shades of Beethoven and even Chopin hovering close by. Jando clearly has the measure of these works, playing them after years of close study yet always making them sound fresh and new. He manages to make Haydn’s decades of musical development sound as if they were simply extensions of his fingers. Jeno Jando brings the music to life, often making it feel improvisatory. It is a tour-de-force of pianism and is strongly recommended.

The sound of these discs is uniformly excellent with the Naxos engineers providing a rich, full tone to the piano. They avoid the dryness and close-miking that often accompanies piano recordings, allowing a natural bloom to envelop the instrument and surrounding it with a softly resonant space. The ear never tires as it is gently massaged by this acoustic warmth.

— Mike Birman