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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)  
Piano Sonata No. 49 in E flat major, Hob. XVI/49 (1789-90) [23:00]
Piano Sonata No. 50 in C major, Hob. XVI/50 (c.1794-5) [18:50]
Piano Sonata No. 32 in B minor, Hob. XVI/32 (1774-6) [15:29]
Piano Sonata No. 40 in G major, Hob. XVI/40 (1784) [12:01]
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, 2017.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902371 [69:27]

Should you not be familiar with Piano Sonata 49 which opens this CD, the first Paul Lewis has made of Haydn, you might be expecting classical refinement. But no: you are in for a surprise, in sheer variety and vivacity. There are two early themes: a nimble, playful one counterbalanced by a lyrical response soon ditched and a more insistently expansive soaring and then falling theme (tr. 1, 0:17) which Lewis deftly leaves gazing out into space. The nimble idea is now partnered by a surging rise and fall, the decoration fast and heady, Lewis’ exuberance almost boiling over. Round this off with a jolly bass theme, immediately challenged with more decoration in high treble, Lewis now exultant. Then an exposition codetta that muses over the rhythm of the ‘fate motif’ opening of Beethoven’s fifth before he composed it and bows out as Lewis toys with alternatingly suave and emphatic endings. That final ending turns reflective again for extended exploration in the development with some reference to the second theme grown more austere before the first can’t be repressed any longer and brings in its wake the ‘fate motif’. This tries to become more portentous but is mocked by Lewis in its soft repetition in the bass. In the recapitulation the second idea is more soberly assured, the first is energy shorn of frivolity, the jolly tune now in polite upper middle register. But change tack with the ‘fate motif’ gaining rakish appoggiaturas. The final surprise is that the winner, the most enduring theme, turns out to be the second and you welcome the second half repeat to discover how Haydn manages this.

For comparison I’m using the recordings by Lewis’ mentor, Alfred Brendel (Decca E4757297). He recorded Sonata 49 in 1979. His opening idea is a little weightier, more bantering but his second theme is dreamier. The energizing of the first theme is gallant rather than, as with Lewis, effervescent. Brendel’s jolly bass and treble theme is more mellow, his ‘fate motif’ more mysterious, the soft repetitions in the bass a more ominous presence. His return of the ‘fate motif’ with appoggiaturas is garish. In the ever-present lovely touch of Brendel’s account of it you’re more aware that the second theme has a quiet mastery all along. This sense of overview is a very satisfying feature of Brendel’s approach. With Lewis you get more animation and humour, also a second theme which blossoms, but I find his handling of it at the beginning of the development less telling than Brendel’s.

Haydn himself termed the slow movement “rather difficult but full of feeling”. It has three elements. The opening theme is an outpouring of affection. Its opening phrase poses a question which is answered by a courtly but also leaping resilience. The question, put again, is answered by higher, more yearning leaps, the point being that beneath Lewis’ polished objectivity and accomplished decoration there’s a burning intensity. The second theme (tr. 2, 1:02) is low-lying and rich but becomes more desolate. The return of the opening theme is the means of assuaging this desolation. When both first and second themes are repeated, the first theme needs must return in a more florid face, but you wonder if this seeking after jollity is too forced. Enter this movement’s third element, a turbulent central section of pained outcry (3:39), even of despair, combined with tender pleading, resulting in a grave yet determined transformation of the opening theme which works its way to a recapitulation finding it more thoughtful yet also mellow. This mellowness modifies the return of the second theme enough for the first to come back with its former sparkle. The coda is quite gentle – a calm acceptance?

Timing at 9:11 to Lewis’ 8:29, Brendel’s more measured Adagio e cantabile works I feel to his advantage. His presentation of the first theme has a poised deliberation, well considered and worthy of attention, but neither does it lack spontaneity. Similar characteristics apply to the second theme and in this respect Brendel supplies Lewis’ richness and adds austerity but not Lewis’ desolation, reserving that for the equally careful expression of the central section. For me Brendel gives more strikingly a sense of the transformed first theme having come to a climax and, working through it, finding a solution in terms which are accepted by the second theme, while in the final response of the first theme Brendel lets us appreciate relief at escape from potential tragedy. What is, however, attractive about Lewis’ account is its ‘in the moment’ quality, especially the more carefree spontaneity of its opening material.

The ‘Minuet’, also rondo, finale is quite brief after the preceding movements yet deceptive in its simplicity. Lewis gives us a vivacious Minuet of unbridled happiness and dainty glitter. His ‘Trio’, also episode (tr. 3, 1:07), mixes neat pirouettes and vigorous somersaults. His return to the Minuet, though still in E flat major, is now quite formal, preparing us for its sudden journey into E flat minor, Lewis showing resilience even in sad times. With the resonance of that strength it can close with more sinew than it began. Brendel’s tone is more courtly and smooth than Lewis, a key factor in a consistently contemplative quality, where Lewis gives us a piece whose nature transforms. Being slightly faster, timing at 3:54 to Lewis’ 4:11, Brendel presents a piece of more appreciable underpinning energy, his contrast between the two aspects of the Trio being more markedly that of the suave and the violent. The truer comparative timing for Brendel should be 4:05 but he curiously omits the repeat of the minor version of the Minuet theme.

Lewis reveals the first movement of Piano Sonata 50 as a celebration of invention, his performance teeming with zest for life and making merry, exuberant in the ability to play around with motifs and counterpoint. It begins with the first theme quietly and playfully presented as a kind of introduction before it returns as a fanfare in storming arpeggio chords and thereafter grows with a giggling quality in its appoggiatura decorations. The ‘second’ theme (tr, 4, 0:41) has the opening motif of the theme in left hand pounding quavers in octaves, the bass particularly emphatic, while rising semiquaver flourishes in the right-hand shower the landscape. Eventually the semiquaver figures become insistent and repetitive, only to be relieved by a rarely more expansive melodic line (1:15) through which Lewis seems to allow us to pay an early visit to Schubert. This is swept away by the bracing return of crisp, arpeggio chords and enough semiquaver cluster repetitions to make you giddy. The presentation of the material is rigorous and intellectual. You think of Bach, especially at the beginning of the development which is graced with a touch of sobriety, but as soon as that theme returns in those octaves in the left hand irrepressible energy becomes the ruling factor. Allied to this are surprises: out of the blue a top F (4:07) signals a brief melodic passage of stupendous coloratura manner (there’s an even better one in the coda) followed by a mysterious, pp smoothed out appearance of the opening motif. Lewis makes this variety a romp of delight in a swashbuckling display of virtuosity and vividly wilful dynamic contrasts.

Brendel recorded Sonata 50 in 1982. Timing this Allegro first movement at 10:01 to Lewis’ 10:42, Brendel concentrates on revealing its generation of energy. The arpeggio chords thereby become more natural, less surprising than Lewis, formal affirmation following the tension already built. You’re aware of a burning urgency of progression overall, rather than contrasts of character in the delivery of the music and here I found less to enjoy than with Lewis in the stomping start of the ‘second’ theme, the expansion of the melodic line and contrast of crisp return to the earlier mood. Brendel brings a compelling, authoritative formality. Lewis makes the experience more heady and vibrant.

Generosity is the mood that pervades the slow movement, in magnanimity, ornamentation and surprises, like the C sharp rather than expected C at the end of the third phrase and indeed the sudden, ethereal upper register of the second theme (tr. 5, 0:40), topped by an exquisitely frilly exposition codetta (1:29). The briefly meditative development evaporates like a daydream. If the decoration in the recapitulation seems extravagant, the coda provides a benign farewell. Lewis responds to these variations with sensitivity. Timing this Adagio at 5:53 to Lewis’ 5:29, for me Brendel’s sober opening misses Lewis’ pervasive, engaging vitality, but the more reflective quality Brendel brings to the second theme I found more captivating and then assertive before his more tripping codetta. Brendel’s development is more insistent before it flies away. His recapitulation keeps the fundamental tone rich, so the ornamentation doesn’t seem excessive. He shows greater poise in the coda, but does it become too self-conscious?

The finale is a scherzo which seems to be going merrily along until midway through its second phrase it comes to a grinding, dissonant halt. The restart adds a sequence to the theme, doubling its jocular appoggiaturas before launching into sequences of manic quavers. The second half’s calmer, smoother beginning is immediately rejuvenated an octave higher, injecting the adrenalin which brings forth more madcap repetition and vaunting quavers. The theme returns soft and sober but soon gathers force in phrases beginning with loud, effervescent arpeggios which by now you anticipate will return an octave higher, climaxing with a top A (tr. 6, 1:24), a note Beethoven didn’t reach in his sonatas until the Waldstein, composed in 1803-4. Lewis presents this roller coaster ride with fizzing vividness yet also points up the intermittent pauses and about-turns as if ever unresolved about the scherzo’s real mood. Timing at 2:17 to Lewis’ 2:32, Brendel gives us more of an Allegro molto yet a quieter manner, presenting everything with a pristine crispness, to more stimulating than madcap effect, somehow finding poetry and beauty in the repetitions. I found this enchanting but wondered if it was any longer a scherzo.

Sonata 32 is the only one on this CD in a minor key, B minor, and it shows a sombre Haydn. The ornamentation (mordents) applied to the first three notes of the opening theme have, in Lewis’ hands, an irascible nature. That theme veers between lament and complaint, poignantly revisiting and refining its pain. The second theme (tr. 7, 0:38) is business-like, resolute and progressive, looking towards a positive outcome for this situation. It might be the response of a well-meaning friend. But the development suggests the aggrieved self-absorption is entrenched, however much the steely glaze of the second theme’s further response might be deemed an optimistic counter. The fascination of the first theme lies in its occasional melting and sunlight just before the second theme enters. The latter also shows potential for more flexibility in its left-hand line. Lewis gives us what, were it vocal, would be termed an eloquent scena between two intractable positions. The first theme articulation remains stubborn, the second maybe needn’t be as brusque “get a grip” in its semiquaver cascades suggesting a possible happy outcome.

Brendel recorded Sonata 32 in 1984. Timing at 6:44 to Lewis’ 6:54, Brendel gives us slightly more emphasis on the first element of this Allegro moderato. His first theme’s mordents are impetuous where Lewis is angry. The more notable elegance of Brendel’s phrasing tempers the bitter tang of the expression while the final phrase of the first theme suggests the ability to skip away is a distinct, coquettish possibility. Brendel’s second theme, or person, is robust and jaunty, with an assured resilience even if there’s a touch of hectoring about it. His is a more urbane scena. The first theme’s progression suggests a coy, perhaps inconstant, person, able to change mood quickly. Come the development, however, this person is more obsessively doleful while the second person’s steeliness from Brendel seems to say “Have it your own way then.” Brendel’s ‘characters’ have more realism but I have more sympathy for those as presented by Lewis.

The Minuet in B major is very much the time for elegance from Lewis without a care in the world. He floats it all beautifully on Cloud Nine. His Trio, back to B minor, busy and lugubrious, attempts to break the spell and the thunderous left-hand descent to lowest F sharp is impressive, but the returning Minuet is unfazed. Brendel’s Minuet is admirably neat and precise but you sense a discipline of projection: it doesn’t have the mellow, gliding quality of Lewis. Brendel, however, creates a more sinister Trio as all his octave doublings in the bass are given a weight to contrast the right-hand lightness.

The finale, B minor once more, begins by hammering 5 repeated quaver Bs to start the first theme. After a short silence this gathers intensity with clattering chromatic descents in octave doublings in the right hand, somewhat relieved by a series of leaps which Lewis softens in volume as they continue. This effect isn’t marked but I like it as there is a slight descent to them. The second theme (tr. 9, 0:28) has a right-hand parade of semiquavers like a spinning top while the left hand has ascending quavers. Come the development these become descending quavers in a kind of grim finality. The tension is ratcheted up by continual upbeat accents and entries. In the development the first theme becomes more insistent and culminates in an ascent to a climax. The second theme’s spinning, however, threatens to go on for ever. This is Sturm und Drang style Haydn only found elsewhere in his piano sonatas in Sonata 20 in C minor. Lewis is a sure guide, his development having more urgency and his climax firm, but I did feel his comely virtuosity in the spinning semiquavers tempered the tension somewhat. With Brendel you sense a trapeze artist who might at any moment crash. Brendel gives more emphasis to the upbeat accents after the early silence, but this results in the chromatic descents having less impact, which I feel Lewis is right to highlight more. Brendel, on the other hand, makes the following leaps tense. Brendel’s spinning semiquavers, though lightly articulated, are more tremulous and his quaver ascents have more bite. In sum Brendel conveys more drama and sense of headlong propulsion, even though his Presto is slightly slower, timing at 4:39 to Lewis’ 4:32. This is a comparative timing for the equivalent presentation. Lewis chooses to play the emphatic closing ten bars as a coda only whereas Brendel also includes them, with muted cadence, at the first playing of the second half.

To end this CD Lewis gives us Sonata 40. Think of it as encore fun. With only two movements its scale is modest, but it would be a mistake to consider it lacking in range. The first movement has the distinctive marking Allegretto e innocente for its theme and variations. Lewis opts for a robust little tune of folksy freshness in the way it gradually opens out and sunnily climaxes while its second part gratefully sunbathes for a while, lingering just long enough for us to enjoy the luxury, before returning down to what’s still a very comfortable earth. Decoration throughout adds sophistication yet is always tastefully applied. Variation 1 (tr. 10, 2:07) introduces minor key tension, dramatic sforzandi and Lewis shows us how what was a carefree gaze becomes suddenly tormented. Variation 2 (3:14) finds a sobered theme soberly responding by keeping busy via almost constant semiquaver runs exchanged between the hands and this works as the ability to balance these, deftly achieved by Lewis, becomes an integral part of the theme’s expressiveness. In Variation 3 (5:19) the minor key now launches an identity crisis in demisemiquavers. In Variation 4 (6:26) the theme counters with demisemiquavers of its own, but it’s the regular flow of semiquavers that’s really invigorating, finally repeating high D almost to bursting point until calmed by quavers, clashing with simultaneous Cs, but presented calando, an infrequent marking indicating a softening of dynamic and slowing of tempo, both delectably achieved by Lewis. He and Haydn bow out with a mix of dainty footfalls and crashing arpeggios.

Brendel recorded Sonata 40 in 1985. He presents the theme more innocently in that it’s plainer, more guileless, though the contradiction then with its decoration is more marked, as is Brendel’s greater adventurousness with added, yet ever judicious, ornamentation in repeats. His Variation 1 is quieter but no less troubled. There’s more sense of having deeply mulled it over, so that its top C climax is more anguished. That said, Lewis’ more boisterous approach to Variations 3 and 4 reveals their qualities more vividly.

Lewis revels in the exhilaration of the Presto rondo finale, especially the cocking-a-snook appoggiatura of its theme’s end cadence, and he gets a lot of fun from the left-hand retorts there and sometimes its beginnings, such as in the E minor episode (tr. 11, 1:11) to which and its battle in syncopation between the hands he brings more than a touch of abandon. The rest is a breathtakingly nimble display of semiquaver clusters. Brendel doesn’t quite match this, nor Lewis’ facetiousness, but he does show a lively, more twinkling humour. He gets more kick out of the figure which opens the theme and his episode is starkly angular, but his left-hand retorts seem unduly polite.

A splendid first Haydn disc from Lewis then, not effacing Brendel in masterly presentation of overall structure, but knocking some spots off him in sparkling articulation and spontaneity.

Michael Greenhalgh




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