by Karl Nehring
Haydn: 48 Piano Sonatas. Daniel-Ben Pienaar, piano. AVIE AV257
Entwurf-Katalog of 1765); Six Sonatas (1765-1772); Six Sonatas dedicated to Prince Nicolas Esterházy (c. 1773, published in 1774); Six Sonatas (1774-?76); Six Sonata dedicated to Katharina and Marianna Auenbrugger (published in 1880); Three Sonatas (published in London in 1783); Three Sonatas for Princess Maria Esterházy (published in 1784); Two Sonatas (1789-90); Three English Sonatas (1794-95); plus Variations in F minor (1793) and nine early Sonatas widely presumed to be by Haydn. Pienaar’s liner notes go into great detail about the difficulty of making a “definitive cycle” of Haydn’s works for piano owing to questions of authenticity. He also offers some remarks concerning how to approach performing these works today.
I was surprised to discover in the liner note credits that for this release Pienaar had done his own recording and editing. Above the list of credits here is a photo of his piano with the following caption: “The Angela Burgess Recital Hall at the Royal Academy of Music, London. The recording took place in a series of overnight sessions in late 2020, with no engineer or producer present. A single pair of suspended omni-directional microphones was used.” Pienaar is on the faculty at the Royal Academy of Music, which gave him easy access to this recording venue and the associated equipment; still, it is unusual for an artist to record without the assistance of an engineer or producer.
There is a helpfully informative article by Pienaar in the November 14, 2023, issue of the International Piano Newsletter in which the pianist discusses this recording in considerable detail; I recommend it highly. As with the liner notes, he discusses the difficulties involved in putting together the set of sonatas to record and his approach to performing them. But as something of a hopeless old boomer audiophile, I could not help but be particularly fascinated by Pienaar’s account of the recording process:
“I started recording at the end of the summer, at the Royal Academy of Music in London. The Academy’s Angela Burgess Recital Hall is fitted with a single pair of omnidirectional mics that are pretty good – so I just positioned the piano in the best way I could and played and played, without an engineer or producer. I got permission to access the building overnight, and I tended to work on Saturday nights. I would record about one CD’s worth of music on each of these nights, spending altogether eight nights between September and December. It then took me about five weeks to choose takes and edit everything (I always edit my own work). It was especially important for me that everything should remain ‘fresh’ and that I should capture a feeling of making music for myself, allowing myself to be surprised by Haydn’s music, and exploring in the way I do every day at the piano – thus working in an intimate hall, on my own, and using the simplest means of recording… Every album of mine has been a kind of experiment in avoiding the glossiness that seems almost de rigueur nowadays when it comes to recorded sound. The question to ask is: what are we trying to achieve with recorded sound? Are we just evoking a space? As a listener I don’t really want to be transported to an empty concert hall. And it is important to engage the imagination of the listener – does the recorded sound allow that to happen? It feels to me that the mind is better at filling in some ‘gaps’ in audio information than subtracting it in the case of unrealistic, excessive amounts of resolution and detail.”
The sound quality is quite satisfying. The first noticeable quality is that there seems to be just the right amount of distance between the microphones/our ears and the piano. This is not one of those piano recordings where we hear every little click of the keys or creak of the piano bench. On the other hand, it is also not one of those recordings with an abundance of ambient background room or hall sound. At the same time, the sound is full-bodied and dynamic, sounding very much like a piano.
Later in this same article, Pienaar goes on to comment about the music, using a term that I found surprising: “The combination of elements in Haydn’s music strikes me, perhaps more than anything, as rather mysterious. There is something one can’t quite put one’s finger on which makes it beautiful in a special way – very different from the totally disarming sensuality and emotion of Mozart.” It’s the word “mysterious” that caught me off-guard, for it is not the word that I would think of to describe this music, which sounds to my ears as something of a mixture of Bach and Mozart, but leaning more to the latter than the former. But I am not a pianist, nor a musician. I have no adequate words to describe Haydn’s keyboard music, other than to say I find it spirited and enjoyable. Pienaar is certainly WAY more qualified than I to describe this music; upon reflection, I find his use of the term “mysterious” stimulating and delightful.
Those same terms – “stimulating” and “delightful” – are also apt descriptions of this boxed set as a whole. There is much delight to be discovered in the piano music of Haydn, and this set offers the music lover a way to sit back and dig in. Whether one might want to methodically work their way through the whole set from start to finish or instead randomly listen to a few selections here and there while perusing the CD booklet for background information, this release offers those opportunities in a package of excellent quality.
The Complete Beethoven Piano Concertos. (CD1) Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15; No. 2 in B-flat Major, Op. 19; (CD2) No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37; No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58; (CD3) No. 5 in E-flat Major, Op. 58; Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43. Garrick Ohlsson, piano; Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra; Sir Donald Runnicles, conductor. Reference Recordings FR-751SACD
I must preface this review by shamefacedly admitting that it is inexcusably late in seeing the light of day. Poor Garrick Ohlsson, Sir Donald Runnicles, and the entire Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra (or, more precisely, this particular copy of their Beethoven concertos recording) somehow managed to disappear in my listening room for a period of many months, cleverly evading my determined search. Happily enough, though, I finally came upon it – pretty much by accident, of course – and am finally able to pass along the recommendation that I should by all rights have passed along many months ago. In the CD booklet, pianist Garrick Ohlsson (b. 1948) remarks that over the course of his long career he has performed each of the Beethoven concertos more than 100 times and that he was excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with Sir Donald Runnicles to record these works over the span of a week of concert performances in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The CD booklet includes an essay by producer Vic Muenzer in which he goes into a fair amount of detail about the recording process in some detail.
The end result is set of Beethoven concertos that is warm and comfortable both in sound and performance. This is not the lean and swift sort of Beethoven playing that we have come to hear more often owing to the many “historically informed performance” and/or “original instruments” Beethoven recordings in the marketplace. Ohlsson’s playing on his Steinway sounds rich and expressive, and the sound quality is on the warm and full side. It just all sounds, well, comfortable – and quite enjoyable for all that. My favorite sets of Beethoven piano concertos have been Fleisher/Szell/Cleveland and Bronfman/Zinman/Tonhalle Zurich. This new release from Reference Recordings supplants neither of those, but it is still worthy of consideration by those looking for an entertaining and rewarding set of the Beethoven piano concertos. It's a first-class set both musically and sonically.