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Haydn Complete Piano Sonatas

Rudolf Buchbinder (piano)
Warner Classics (10 CDs) 2564-63782-2

A welcome reissue, in the bargain box format, of Buchbinder’s classic complete Haydn. Buchbinder is Austrian, and his playing exactly embodies why we speak of ‘Viennese classics.’ He emphasises flow and continuity, sequences and melodic interest. Though always rhythmically precise, these are openly pianistic, civilised, cultured readings.

Haydn is so celebrated as the father of the symphony and string quartet that his similar role with respect to the piano sonata is often forgotten – though the booklet notes, by no less than Misha Donat, are quick to remind us.

Buchbinder’s Haydn collection first appeared almost exactly at the same time as the John McCabe Decca set, and comparisons between the two approaches are very instructive. The timing, incidentally, was probably no coincidence - it was around ten years after the definitive Christa Landon / Wiener Urtext edition had been published. Both sets re-ordered the sonatas from the original Hoboken numbering to hers; note also that both include the variation sets.

In McCabe’s hands, Haydn’s specific gravity has a great deal to do with its sense of earthiness, music that is equally at ease in palaces and peasant fields. This means McCabe detaches phrases from one another, plays with a conscious steadiness and a powerful sense of rhythmical cadence. Chords are often deliberate; these are performances peppered with full stops and semi-colons.

Whether coincidence or house style, the legendary Decca complete sets of Haydn symphonies (Dorati) and the string quartets by the Aeolians have precisely these same virtues. McCabe’s set is for those who are keen to stress Haydn’s difference from the rest of the Viennese classical style, and especially from Mozart. If you prefer Colin Davis’ stateliness in the symphonies, or the Amadeus in the quartets, you may find Buchbinder a more congenial listen.

Detailed comparisons could be drawn from more or less any sonata. McCabe, for example, starts Hoboken XVI 49 with far greater deliberation, Buchbinder faster and more allusively, with much more spring in the scale-based themes. In the finale, Buchbinder plays the insistent repeated notes in the rondo theme as an accompaniment to the melodic shape; for McCabe it is more a drumbeat, a call to attention with every reprise. In Hoboken XVI 32 McCabe brings a solemnity and grandeur to the slow movement and a sense of agitation to the finale that Buchbinder’s less searching playing lacks. But come to XVI 37, and the smooth semiquaver motifs of the first movement and the silkiness in the minuet make Buchbinder far the more effective.

More tinkly or more clumpy? Talcum powder or carbolic soap? Wigs or Wellington boots? Court or country? I am exaggerating the differences, of course, since both sets are exemplary in their fidelity to what is recognisably the classical style. There is no right or wrong; you may recall that pianists as eminent as Gilels and Richter chose to play Mozart in the way that McCabe plays Haydn, with a conscious repudiation of tenderness.

In any case, however, this Buchbinder is an ideal reference set; it is significantly cheaper than McCabe, even with both in re-issue; the recording also sounds very good, even after thirty years. When one considers that at time of first issue, a complete Haydn piano sonata set would have cost well over £100 (goodness knows how much that is with thirty years of inflation added), this box is another astonishing bargain.

Ying Chang