Haydn’s piano sonatas are often overshadowed by Beethoven and Mozart. And with over 60 of them, choosing which ones to play is also a trickier task. And, with only a handful of recent major recordings – Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and András Schiff spring to mind – Haydn isn’t well represented in the studio, either.
Many of his early sonatas were written for his students and as such are brief and understated. By the 1760s and 1770s his writing had become more passionate with his later sonatas more substantial and expressive. He wrote two of these virtuosic works for friends and celebrated pianist Theresa Jansen, who was also the dedicatee of pieces by other composers including her teacher Clementi.
Haydn was particularly inspired by CPE Bach, whose motifs he often mimicked, including upwards arpeggios at the end of movements. An immensely spirited composer, Haydn is also renowned for playing tricks on the listener, including the false ending in which the listener believes the piece to be drawing to a close, only for the music to start up again in an unrelated key.
The earlier sonatas were written for the harpsichord – it wasn’t until 1771 with Sonata No. 20 that Haydn used dynamic markings, suggesting that the music could be played on a fortepiano. This marked the beginning of Haydn’s use of the Viennese Classical style, which Beethoven then adopted before venturing into Romanticism.