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CD Reviews: Marc-André Hamelin's perfect Haydn piano sonatas an escape from our disordered world

By John Terauds on June 12, 2012

Haydn Piano Sonatas III (Hyperion)

The order, symmetry and proportion of the four-dozen surviving piano sonatas of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) have often struck me as the perfect antidotes to the messiness of everyday life. Canadian expat pianist Marc-André Hamelin serves them up with a particular clarity, fluency and nuance in his ongoing survey.

Hyperion has just released the third instalment of Hamelin’s journey, a two-CD set that, in 157 minutes, focuses on Haydn’s unbelievably productive middle age — the time when he wrote his landmark string quartets and his (nearly forgotten) operas for the noble Esterhazy family and was lauded as Europe’s finest composer.

This is beautiful music that doesn’t make huge technical demands on a performer. Its utter clarity, however, means that the pianist’s every gesture and intention stands out in high relief. Hamelin rewards us on all levels, using his prodigious technique to make the music sound as facile as bending over to smell a honeysuckle blossom. But under the dew-sprinkled blooms lie hours and hours of careful thought and shaping.

There doesn’t appear to be any interpretive detail that Hamelin has overlooked as he translates the pages of little black dots into compelling musical narrative.

In a nod to stylistic variety, this album plucks a couple of bonbons from the 1850s — the G and C Major divertimenti that were later published as Sonatas Nos 1 & 6 (using the Hoboken catalogue order) — as well as the short, late Sonata in D Major, No. 51, one of the fruits of Austrian composer’s second visit to London in 1794. Here, the music foreshadows the stylistic and emotional freedoms of a budding Romantic sensibility. Beethoven was already hard at work, impressing Vienna’s aristocrats with his keyboard showmanship. Schubert would be born four years later.

The pieces from the 1760s, representing the bulk of the 11 chosen for this album, are an oasis of order within the classic sonata form — a form Haydn is most responsible for. He is never at a loss for compelling subjects, which he develops with wit and whimsy. The slow movements are contemplative, sometimes melancholy wonders. There’s often a backwards glance (Haydn was, after all, born only nine years after Bach left Köthen for Leipzig) with the inclusion of a minuet movement.

Echoes of Baroque, the symmetries and symplicity of Classicism, and the emotional freedom inspired by Goethe. It makes for music that really can soothe the breast made savage by gridlock and email fatigue.

For all the details on this album, click here.

And here is a handy primer on the album prepared by an industrious YouTuber:

Wiklund Piano Concertos Nos 1 & 2, Konsertstycke (Hyperion)

I couldn’t help thinking of Richard Addinsell’s Warsaw Concerto, written for performance in a World War II-era movie as I listened to Piano Concerto No. 1 by Swedish conductor-composer Adolf Wiklund (1879-1950). The Swedish piece, which dates from the first decade of the 20th century, bristles with every clichéd crashing piano chord one would expect to please a movie producer who has just slammed his fist down on a Hollywood boardroom table to demand something that sounds like a Great Piano Concerto.

What saves the 57th album in Hyperion’s every-nook-and-cranny exploration of The Romantic Piano Concerto is Wiklund’s second attempt at the form, written towards the end of World War I.

The three movements of the Piano Concerto No. 2 are more dense, filled with fascinating travels to far-off keys and show traces of some intriguing musical ideas (you can check out a good, but slower, performance below).

Quality of the compositions notwithstanding, the interpretations are excellent. Swedish pianist Martin Sturfält is as spectacular as his Hamburg Steinway piano at the home of Sweden’s Helsingborg Symphony Orchestra. The audio quality is clear yet spacious, helping clarify the nice leadership of British violinist-conductor Andrew Manze.

Wiklund, who largely put his career as a composer on hold when he became conductor at the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1911, does not even rate a footnote in my Dictionnaire de la musique, but the album notes say the three pieces on this CD (there is also a short Konsertstycke, Op. 1, from 1902) have enjoyed some popularity in Sweden.

There’s no reason to think this recording is going to improve Wiklund’s international profile — but there is interesting listening here for fans of neglected musical effusion.

For all the details on this album, click here.

Here are a mystery orchestra and soloist performing the first two movements — Allegro moderato and Antante sostenuto — of Wiklund’s Piano Concerto No. 2, in B minor, Op. 17:

John Terauds

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