Last month I reviewed a 10 CD box set of the complete Beethoven Sonatas played by Artur Schnabel. Beethoven's sonatas are at the core of the standard repertory, the most frequently played and recorded of all piano sonatas. Despite the scratchy '30s sonics and the aging Schnabel's fading technique, his profound understanding of the depths of those works set an interpretive standard that has still not been surpassed.
Throughout his career Schnabel specialized in the great Germanic composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert). In contrast, Hamelin has typically concentrated on more obscure repertory (Catoire, Granger, Roslavets, Medtner, to name a few). It is good to find this gifted virtuoso applying his technical and interpretive brilliance to a mainstream composer, especially because Haydn's piano sonatas are for the most part ignored, with few champions.
Here we have a brilliant new conception and exquisite realization of Haydn's neglected masterpieces. These ten sonatas, mostly selected from his later compositions, cover a wide range of moods and styles, and are full of robust good humor and delicious surprises. Sometimes we hear influences of J.S. Bach, sometimes Scarlatti, and often Mozart. The music isn't consistently at the level of Haydn's wonderful string quartets or symphonies, but works such as No. 46 in A flat major and 52 in E flat major are masterpieces by any standard.
To hear Hamelin play Haydn, either on these fine discs or in live performance, is as if hearing Haydn for the first time. Each movement is exquisitely shaped and phrased, with lightning reflexes worthy of Martha Argerich. The music is often stylistically simple, elegant and gallant. As with Mozart's piano sonatas, it takes a very special pianist to bring this kind of music off the page successfully. Each phrase needs the most carefully judged pulse and touch, and each note demands clean articulation and weighting — because unlike in Beethoven, everything is so exposed. The fast movements require bravura playing, just as in Scarlatti. Horowitz reigns supreme in his Scarlatti recordings, and was more successful there than in any other repertory. Hamelin succeeds equally in the elegant and the bravura movements. He is a born poet who understands this music as well as Schnabel understands Beethoven. In the up-tempo movements his playing is often death-defyingly fast. Surely nobody can possibly play at this speed and keep it all together, right? You are on the edge of your chair. But he pulls it off brilliantly, and maintains absolute clarity of line and careful weighting of each individual note into the bargain. This playing is unfair to other pianists!
Those who approach this level of virtuosity more typically choose vehicles such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies (Kissin), the Liszt Sonata (Zimmerman) or Prokofiev Sonatas (Pollini). We are not used to this in Haydn, but the treatment is not misplaced, and I'm pretty sure old papa Haydn would be thrilled. Like Schubert, he was not a piano virtuoso, and therefore not able to realize fully his own compositions. But he had a tremendous sense of humor, and would have been delighted at Hamelin's antics, explosive flourishes and startling precision.
Go out and make Hyperion, Hamelin and Haydn's ghost happy. Buy these great-sounding discs!