Haydn: Complete Solo Keyboard Works (Blu-Ray)

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COMPOSERS: Haydn
LABELS: PCM
WORKS: Complete Solo Keyboard Works
PERFORMER: Tom Beghin (clavichord, harpsichord, square piano, fortepiano, piano)
CATALOGUE NO: NBD 0001-04 (Blu-ray: 3 x audio, 1 x video; dts-HD master audio 5.0 & PCM 2.0; 1080i60 HD picture format)

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This is extraordinary. Epithets such as ‘landmark’ or ‘ground-breaking’ are often used in the marketing of recordings, but this is one of those truly rare occasions when, in several respects, new ground is being traversed, with importance beyond the repertoire involved.

The title of the set, ‘the Virtual Haydn’, is unfortunate, potentially raising the hackles amid suspicions of gimmickry. Let it be said at the outset, then, that, in purely musical terms, this is as stimulating, sincere, thoughtful, spirited and joyful a traversal of Haydn’s solo keyboard works as you will find anywhere. They are historically informed to a greater degree than any equivalent set, but there is nothing dry, dowdy or dusty here. Tom Beghin simply gives superlative performances, full of individuality, packed into three audio-only Blu-ray discs.

Presented as a series of ten concerts, the works are performed on replicas of seven contemporary instruments, ranging from clavichord to square piano and a 1799 English grand piano. Three of the instruments are recorded here for the first time, notably a Viennese harpsichord with ‘short octave’, in which certain notes in the lower register are divided into two or three parts, enabling more notes and larger intervals to be played. (Beghin can be seen playing the short octave in the fourth disc’s filmed performances.) The instruments also bring all sorts of timbral possibilities in terms of stops and pedals that are lost not only on modern pianos, but also in using just a single fortepiano.

As if that were not enough food for thought, Beghin also uses a variety of tunings, including various unequal temperaments, bringing much colour and showing how Haydn used ‘out of tune’ intervals to expressive, sometimes comic, effect. Some pieces are recorded in different versions, demonstrating fresh approaches to ornamentation, or the dual English and Viennese roots of the final E flat Sonata.

In addition to the performance elements, nine historical rooms have been acoustically measured and ‘virtually’ reconstructed in the recording studio, the effect being as if Beghin were actually playing in the music room at Esterháza, or Haydn’s own study. While a clavichord works in Haydn’s study, it almost disappears in the spacious acoustic of the Esterháza music room.

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For comparison, Haydn’s Andante for musical clock can be heard on all seven instruments, with each of the nine acoustics applied. While such experiments are fun, the myriad aspects of this project are patently at the service of magnificent performances of Haydn’s music. Time and again this fascinating and absorbing set prompts renewed marvel at this wonderful repertoire. Christopher Dingle