HAYDN Piano Sonatas Nos 30, 31 & 62 (Ancelle)
Writing in these pages recently about Paul Lewis’s latest Haydn adventure (Harmonia Mundi, 5/18), Harriet Smith rightly reminds us that ‘the genius of Haydn’s sonatas is that they can take so many different artistic approaches’. The question, then, is whether there are any approaches the sonatas can’t take. Arthur Ancelle certainly pushes his point further than most. His booklet essay immediately sets his agenda: ‘Haydn with an H for Hooligan’. Fair enough. Just as Shakespeare productions may seek to recreate the shock that audiences of his day would have felt at hearing the words that now have become part of our everyday language, so Ancelle sets himself the task of restoring Haydn’s ‘emotional manipulations’ of his audience.
In deploying such exaggerated contrasts, he is open to the criticism of being more dazzling than illuminating. ‘Haydn is fun’, indeed. But there is a line between this and caricature, and Ancelle is dangerously close to it with his teasing hesitations, accelerations and florid variants in the opening movement of the A flat Sonata (No 46), all disconcertingly reminiscent of the way Glenn Gould used to treat repertoire he despised (such as pretty much all of Mozart). The outer movements of this sonata find Ancelle at his most quirky; for a safer, non-excessive approach stick with Hamelin. But suspicions that Ancelle is forcing his point disappear with his limpid and serene account of the Adagio central movement, and the remaining sonatas on the disc prove ideal vessels for his explorations. The other middle-period sonata, in D major (No 19), is convincing throughout, its Puckish finale surpassing even Bavouzet for joyful fizz. When it comes to the more often-played E flat Sonata (No 52), Ancelle responds fully to the rich textures, grand architecture and Beethovenian character without sacrificing the spirited and mercurial quality he emphasises throughout the programme. Helped by bright, airy recording quality, this issue shows Ancelle to be an intelligent and adventurous artist whose Haydn deserves to be heard by even those normally averse to interventionist approaches.