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After 13 Years, a Zesty Haydn Survey Makes Its Mark


Jean-Efflam Bavouzet faced each good and bad news in 1989.

This French pianist, still then making his way as what a Recent York Times review from around that point called “a rigorously severe modernist,” had earned his first recording contract, with a small label of impeccable taste.

But at the identical time, his right hand had been diagnosed with functional dystonia, a painful muscle condition that has blighted the careers of many musicians.

Unable to bite into octaves as he often could, Bavouzet had to desert his hopes of recording Bartok. What to do as a substitute? He eventually selected Haydn, 4 or five of whose piano sonatas he had in his repertoire on the time. It was just in regards to the only music he could still play.

Cleanly articulated, somewhat cheeky and taking the composer seriously but never too seriously, the tone of that buoyant recording was amply summed up by the title of the booklet notes that his fellow pianist Zoltan Kocsis wrote for the discharge: “Haydn Without Wig.”

Three a long time later, that is strictly what Bavouzet, 59, has delivered on a far greater scale with the discharge last month of the eleventh and final volume in his flamboyant, ebullient, sensible survey of Haydn’s 62 sonatas on the Chandos label, with a number of sets of variations and another works thrown in for the fun of it.

An addition, 13 years within the making, to a discography that already includes similarly excellent explorations of Debussy and Beethoven, Bavouzet’s Haydn is unmatched in its zest and its wit. But it’s also substantial, informed and deeply rewarding.

Furthermore, it’s a scarce achievement. Routine is the pianist of stature who records the Beethoven sonatas, but pianists who release even one or two albums of Haydn are all too rare, and few indeed have paid the arguably underperformed composer such sustained attention.

“I did it with essentially the most intense pleasure,” Bavouzet said in an interview. “Out of 62 sonatas, you might have probably 25 indisputable masterpieces that we all know, which can be on concert programs — not enough, but still. Playing them is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. But they didn’t bring me the identical joy as discovering the much less-known sonatas and bringing them to life.”

The spirit of discovery suffuses every bar that Bavouzet has recorded, whether reinterpreting one among the virtually symphonically sonorous sonatas from Haydn’s days in London within the early 1790s, or reinvigorating a slighter, two-voiced partita or divertimento from the late 1750s.

“Haydn wrote all these sonatas almost as a laboratory of musical experience, an IRCAM for its time,” Bavouzet said, referring to the French avant-garde institute that Pierre Boulez founded in 1977. “These were a spot where he could experiment and see what works.”

It’s the distinctly forward-thinking quality Bavouzet hears in Haydn that makes his set an especially beneficial antidote to the view that each one but the most recent or the grandest of the composer’s piano works offer meager fare compared together with his string quartets or symphonies — the concept they’re pieces written for amateurs that require “all our historical sympathy” to understand now, because the pianist Charles Rosen, a Haydn interpreter himself, wrote in “The Classical Style.”

“After I was a student on the Paris Conservatory within the late ’70s, early ’80s,” Bavouzet recalled, “Haydn was a composer you’ll consider playing in the event you weren’t totally, fully equipped to master a Beethoven sonata — a composer that was too ‘easy,’ so to talk.”

But Bavouzet was convinced otherwise by hearing Sviatoslav Richter play 4 of the sonatas at La Grange de Meslay, an abbey near Tours, France, where the Russian master held an annual festival. Richter had 19 of the sonatas in his repertoire, and counted the composer amongst his favorites.

“Dear Haydn, how I like you!” Richter wrote privately in 1971. “But other pianists? They’re fairly lukewarm towards you. Which is an ideal shame.”

Bavouzet, who recalled taking Martha Argerich’s mother along to the performance, said: “We went to listen to the maestro, Richter, in fact, but we were pondering, 4 sonatas of Haydn — that’s very light, that’s not an actual concert program. The revelation was that when the concert finished, we were totally fed with centuries of musical gestures. Richter didn’t miss any opportunities to make it sound as modern, as striking as possible. It was incredible, how Richter played Haydn onstage.”

From Richter, Bavouzet borrowed a taste for taking part in Haydn on a Yamaha piano, and he’s equally desperate to draw connections across the centuries in his own work. “I like the analogy of Haydn throwing arrows into the longer term,” he said, “and these arrows land on the page of Schumann, of Brahms, of Prokofiev, of Stravinsky.”

Sometimes those arrows don’t fly terribly far, though they still strike true. The slow movement of No. 50, as numbered by the scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, is a Largo e sostenuto in D minor, and stares straight at its kin in Beethoven, the brooding Largo e mesto of Op. 10 No. 3; draw out the dramatic opening of No. 33 in C minor, essentially the most substantial of the sooner works, and you end up within the anguished sound world of Schubert’s last sonata.

But in other works, Haydn displays the range of a longbowman. The Moderato of No. 44 in F looks to Prokofiev with its repeated notes; the trio of No. 12 in A, when practiced at half the speed, struck the pianist as being so near Chopin and even Scriabin that he recorded it that way as a postscript to the fifth volume; the Adagio of the Piano Concerto in G, among the many three that Bavouzet recorded as a side project with Gabor Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata, inspired a nod to Poulenc in its cadenza.

If Bavouzet feels free to interact in somewhat little bit of anachronism when the time seems right — partly inspired by period-instrument pioneers like Paul Badura-Skoda, his Haydn has a touch more spontaneity to it than Paul Lewis’s strict rigor or Marc-André Hamelin’s awe-inspiring bravura allows of their hugely admirable recent recordings — that’s since the composer left the pianist loads of selections to make, especially in the sooner works.

“What I’ll miss essentially the most, now that I actually have covered every little thing,” Bavouzet said, “is the enjoyment of discovering one among the early sonatas, where you might have absolutely no indications, and it’s sight-readable quite easily, but you begin working on it and there may be the sensation of a bottomless well.”

Recording Haydn’s sonatas, in other words, isn’t entirely like recording Beethoven’s, even after a choice has been taken as to make enjoyable, coherent programs out of them. Beethoven’s scores are comparatively explicit about how they needs to be played, although they’re, in fact, open to interpretation. Haydn’s are far less so.

“You are attempting to dig,” Bavouzet continued, “and each time you dig you discover latest beauties, and latest ideas, and also you start embellishing, putting clothes on a fairly naked skeleton, and you are attempting to have a legitimate dynamic plan, and your interpretation takes shape, attempting to make it as interesting as possible, along with your taste, along with your instinct, with the knowledge you might have. You have got this joy of bringing it to life with all of the tools you may imagine.”

Sometimes the issues are specific to a piece — interpret the crazily temporary finale of No. 41, as an illustration, through which Bavouzet imagines that Haydn suddenly decided that he had something else to do the day he wrote — however the pressing ones are common. There’s ornamentation, or an implied cadenza.

Then there may be the fraught issue of whether to take repeats indicated within the second halves of sonata-form movements — a practice Haydn adhered to but his successors sought to flee from — and, in that case, whether to incorporate codas inside the repeats, in order that the endings would effectively be played twice. Consulting with the students Laszlo Somfai and Marc Vignal for the sake of historical accuracy, Bavouzet found himself moving repeat markings around for the sake of flow.

One aspect of the alternatives involved in filling in Haydn’s blanks has convinced Bavouzet that these works are rather more profound than they often get credit for. “We easily forget that the solemn Adagio,” one other great champion of the composer, Alfred Brendel, once wrote in an article about Schubert, “originated in Haydn.”

If Haydn the joker is abundantly on display here, the pauses that he so often uses before delivering his punch lines can suggest something much deeper, Bavouzet said.

“You may read them as a pause to affect what comes next,” he said, “but you furthermore mght can read them as a pause of reflection, a moment when Haydn asks if all this agitation and activity is definitely in vain. He’s stopping because he’s doubting, in a moment of introspection, which in fact gives a completely different, almost philosophical attitude to this continuous energy.”

That’s particularly true, Bavouzet said, of the later sonatas, as in the primary movement of No. 43 in E minor, which has 14 pauses to cope with, or within the finale of the culminating sonata, No. 62 in E flat, which is the last work programmed in his collection other than somewhat Allegretto that he offers as an epilogue, holding the pedal down in dreamy nostalgia for his years of labor.

“The duty isn’t anything apart from absolutely fascinating, but for the performer it’s also testing, and even dangerous,” Bavouzet writes of all these decisions within the booklet notes for his sixth volume, defending a mini-cadenza of his that takes the jolly finale of No. 36 in a momentarily dark direction.

“He must, even greater than usual, create his own world, his own logic, left only to hope that, within the absence of tangible evidence, he is not going to distance himself too removed from the composer’s intentions, which remain perpetually unknowable,” Bavouzet continues. “The more my work progresses down this course, the more an almost infinite horizon of interpretive possibilities opens up before me, all of them valid.”

And that, this project confirms, is one among the various elations of Haydn.

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