ALBUM TITLE: Haydn Piano Sonatas
WORKS: Sonata in C, Hob. XVI:50; Sonata in A flat, Hob. XVI-43; Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:39; Sonata in C minor, Hob. XVI:20; Sonata in G, Hob. XVI:40
PERFORMER: Malcolm Bilson (fortepiano)
CATALOGUE NO: 50-2501
The omen looked good: an attractive cross-section of Haydn’s sonatas, played on a clear, sweet-toned Schantz fortepiano (Haydn’s own preferred make), by a pianist with proven classical credentials. In the event rapture was distinctly modified. The first movement of the great C minor Sonata is about as close as Haydn came to the improvisatory manner of Empfindsamkeit, à la CPE Bach. But the music still has a powerful forward momentum. Or should have. Bilson’s basic tempo is as slow as I have heard, and phrases are by turns snatched and drawn out. The result is disconcertingly jerky and fragmentary, with none of the drama and impassioned sweep generated by Ronald Brautigam, in his complete BIS series (playing on a 1790s Anton Walter fortepiano), András Schiff and Alfred Brendel.
‘Jerky’ was also my reaction to the C minor’s flowing, neo-Baroque slow movement, where Bilson takes virtually every bar line as a cue for soulful ritardando. Similarly, the astonishing, potentially violent climax in the finale’s recapitulation here sounds merely edgy and fussy. In fairness, there are good things elsewhere, including a sturdy, bristling account of the C major’s first movement (whose ‘open-pedal’ effects have a misty, celeste-like quality on the fortepiano), and a zestful performance of No. 40’s comically subversive finale. Bilson is also more adventurous than Brautigam with ornamentation. But this is hardly a clinching factor. If you want Haydn on a fortepiano, Brautigam is technically superior, characterises more sharply and gracefully, and sees each movement whole. Even more probing, though, are Brendel (Philips) and, my own favourite, Schiff, above all for his searching and boldly dramatic performance of the C minor. Richard Wigmore