Haydn Piano Sonatas
For long confined to the by-ways of the repertoire (much of it of a daunting romantic and modern intricacy), the ever-phenomenal Marc-André Hamelin now breaks out into the light with a two-disc set of Haydn sonatas. And unlike Haydn who considered himself less than a wizard of the keyboard (more “neat and direct”, as Richard Wigmore tells us in his superb accompanying essay), Hamelin is a prodigious virtuoso. Here, he remains one, in a full if not entirely inclusive sense, often susceptible to Haydn’s wit, to vertiginous music which can veer to the right just when you expect it to turn left, and vice versa.
He is brilliantly alert to the first Menuetto from No 43, to a dance at once perky and serious, almost as if the composer with his toy fanfares was trying unsuccessfully to keep a straight face. And he can be hauntingly limpid and serene, as in the alternately calm and troubled Adagio from No 46. However, in No 23 I longed for Hamelin to relax his virtuoso prowess. Here, there is an unmistakable sense of hurry, of Haydn’s riches glimpsed rather than savoured, of a composer’s piquancy nearly bustled out of existence. Others, too, have achieved greater grandeur in the final E flat Sonata or made the storm clouds scud more menacingly across the B minor Sonata’s finale (I am thinking of artists such as Andsnes, Ax and, most of all, Brendel). None the less, these are astonishing performances, denying Stephen Kovacevich’s mischievous claim that Haydn’s music suggests that he should dine with the servants rather than the aristocrats. Hyperion’s sound and presentation are, as always, immaculate.