Jean-Efflam Bavouzet & Joseph Haydn’s Piano Sonatas: The Chandos story so far…

Written by: Peter Reed

Haydn Piano Sonatas, Volumes 1-3/Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Volume One

No.39 in D [Hob.XV1:24]

No.47 in B minor [Hob.XV1:32]

No.31 in A flat [Hob.XV1:46]

No.49, in C sharp minor [Hob.XV1:36]

CHANDOS CHAN 10586; 68 minutes

Volume Two

No.48 in C [Hob.XV1:35]

No.32 in G minor [Hob.XV1:44]

No.50 in D [Hob.XV1:37]

No.19 in E minor [Hob.XV1:47bis]

No.20 in B flat [Hob.XV1:18]

CHANDOS CHAN 10668; 69 minutes

Volume 3

No.29 in E flat [Hob.XV1:45]

No.33 in C minor [Hob.XV1:20]

No.42 in G [Hob.XV1:27]

No.16 in D [Hob.XV1:14]

CHANDOS CHAN 10689; 75 minutes

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)

Recorded 6-8 October 2009, 19-21 June 2010 and 16-18 May 2011 at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. ©J Henry-Fair

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has worked wonders with Debussy and Ravel – distinguished performances remarkable as much for detail and articulation as they are for colour and restraint of feeling.

He brings the same qualities, in abundance, to the first three discs in Chandos’s projected series of the complete Haydn keyboard sonatas – around 54 or 55 of them extant, some of dubious attribution, and some listed but lost works.

Bavouzet’s four or five sonatas per issue suggest a total of thirteen or fourteen compact discs (downloads are available, too). I hope he includes some of the variation sets. The relatively generous allocation – for comparison, complete sets by Jenö Jandó and Rudolf Buchbinder fit onto ten CDs – is largely down to the fact that, so far, Bavouzet plays the repeats of both sections of the first movements; many pianists observe only the first. Bavouzet uses the second (the development and recapitulation repeat) for some attractive and apposite decorations, and reserves the ‘right’ to save any cadenza or coda elaboration solely for the repeat.

The effect this has is interesting. Although it obviously makes each first movement longer, it doesn’t necessarily make it weightier – rather, it tends to make it sound more discursive or suite-like, classical in form, certainly, but declaring its late-Baroque and galant provenance. Pianists who don’t observe Haydn’s second repeat need the music to make its point with just one hearing and play accordingly, often with an ear cocked to Beethovenian drama and focus.

We’ll have to wait for future releases to hear what he does in the late, generally better-known (and more frequently recorded) sonatas, but so far Bavouzet’s scrupulous observance of the repeats is justified by the airiness and grace of his playing.

Keyboard sonatas kept Haydn busy for most of his life (not, though, during his last ten years) – that is, during the inexorable ascendancy of the piano over the harpsichord, and in recordings we are spoilt for choice when it comes to type of instrument used: harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano and, of course, the ‘modern’ piano.

Haydn was still specifying the use of harpsichord in the late 1770s, but, to these ears at least, these works really come to life with the fortepiano – listen to the magnificent three-disc compilation of late sonatas and variations from Andreas Staier (on Harmonia Mundi) – and the ‘modern’ grand, with a huge range of Haydn recitals available from Alfred Brendel, András Schiff, Sviatoslav Richter, Leif Ove Andsnes, Fazil Say, Lars Vogt, Marc-André Hamelin, John Lill – the list goes on. Haydn sonatas may not be a repertoire mainstay in the concert hall but they have certainly established themselves in the recording studio.

On the first disc, Bavouzet plays one sonata each from three sets of six published between 1778 and 1780, as well as the big A flat work (Hoboken 46), composed in 1768 but not published until 1788. Bavouzet’s bounce and attack really animates its long first movement and he takes vivid delight in its mercurial passage-work and abrupt contrasts. His meditative approach to the Adagio is emphasised by his own discreetly romantic cadenza. There’s much to admire in the other three sonatas on Volume One – the rapid finger-work in the first movement of Hoboken 24 and its fiendishly difficult Presto finale, played with insouciant virtuosity. Bavouzet brings brilliance and terse intensity to the well-known B minor Sonata and delivers the hazards of the finale with tight precision.

The best-known of the five sonatas on Volume Two is the much-recorded D major. Bavouzet gets to the heart of the first movement’s explosive energy in a truly sizzling performance. In the Largo – an extended upbeat to the finale – he finds a style that embraces old-fashioned baroque style in its measured sarabande rhythm and a ‘Waldstein’-like sense of suspended expectancy. Bavouzet’s buzzing Alberti bass is on seamless form in the C major Sonata and the Adagio’s cantilena is sublimely operatic. He makes us hear how the carefully detailed phrasing in the two-movement G minor Sonata is essential to projecting its lyricism, and he is in his element in the elaborate figurations and sense of teetering anticipation in the B flat Sonata (Hoboken 18).

Volume Three is worth having just for Bavouzet’s penetrating performance of the wonderful C minor Sonata (Hoboken 20). His subtleties of rubato raise even his powers of articulation to new heights, and he abandons himself with infectious delight to Haydn’s games with irregular phrases and rhythms. Possibly he could have gone easier on the urgency in the slow movement, but the approach to the climax has an unexpected gravitas that would not have been lost on the romantics. Bavouzet’s own, weighty, concerto-like cadenza for the finale is completely in the spirit of the work. His account of the E flat Sonata (Hoboken 45, another ‘delayed’ work, this one written in 1766, which waited two decades to be published) reinforces the way in which Bavouzet’s discreet decorations add highlights of definition. The repeated-note figures in the finale are a particular pleasure, both for their wit and easy virtuosity.

Once you start listening to these excellent renditions, there’s no good reason to stop. Bavouzet is fine-tuned to the character of each work, each one illuminated by his intuitive intelligence and boundless delight in their inventiveness and freshness, instantly communicated by spirited, involved playing of the highest quality. The booklet notes (by the French Haydn scholar Marc Vignal and elegantly translated by Stephen Pettit) are excellent, charting a path through this complicated area of Haydn’s output with admirable clarity. The recorded sound, of Bavouzet’s Yamaha instrument, combines delicacy and brightness with solidity of tone and immediacy.

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