Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Haydn’s numerous sonatas are witty, original, and they span a large part of his career, from the early 1760s to 1794. It is interesting that this does not quite overlap the period when Beethoven was writing his 32 Sonatas, and that both composers stopped writing piano sonatas long before the end of their creative lives. Haydn’s Sonatas come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from early works that almost completely avoid chords and are essentially simple two-part inventions, to the famous last sonatas which are robust, virtuosic and often quite startling.
Even so, much of the writing, even in the later works, remains embedded in just two remarkable voices, so their sonority is far less pianistic than that of Beethoven’s sonatas. This gives them a very different character, one of sterling clarity and pristine economy. Reinforcing this economy is the fact that in the later sonatas he often uses the same or similar material for both principal themes in his opening sonata movements. Yet, within these limits, Haydn is able to create wonderfully characterized and contrasting sentiments.
There is no lack of drama, but it usually resolves in a friendly and charming manner; one must imagine the composer smiling a lot while he composed and played these works. Even the extreme contrasts of tonality which he favoured tend to be teasingly joyous rather than clashingly combative.
Not all the sonatas are well suited for public performance, and probably few of them were intended for that mission. I have chosen a group from different periods of his life which I consider eminently suitable for the concert hall.
The Sonata No. 13 in G Major, Hob. XVI/6, is a rare 4 movement work, mainly jovial in character. But the third movement is a wondrously plaintive Adagio in G minor, which gives the whole work an unexpected poignancy and importance. (The fermatas have been embellished by the performer.) The Major/minor contrast is also present in the supremely elegant second movement minuet, whose Trio goes into minor, but less decisively than the third movement, as it spends much of its short life in B-flat Major. The Allegro molto finale whizzes by with charming virtuosity.
The two-movement Sonata No. 32, Hob. XVI/44, is also in the key of G, and it too exploits the conflicting colours of G Major and G minor. Here Haydn starts in a stately and sombre minor mood which, after only five bars, modulates to B-flat Major and stays there through the remainder of the exposition, flaunting some colourfully bubbling downward flourishes. The development takes matters a bit more seriously, and the recapitulation remains steadfastly in minor. Here the extended and highly expressive improvisatory elaboration of the fermata is by the composer.
The second movement has the character of a minuet, but is not so titled. It, too, quickly flees the minor mode, and leads to a new section in G Major. Here the composer anticipates his later trend toward unifying the elements in a movement, for the rhythm and shape of this theme is very similar to the main theme of the movement, except for its sex change into Major. This entire plot is run through twice, until the work ends quite nonchalantly, still in Major.
The Sonata No. 38, Hob. XVI/42, in F Major, once again displays the same Major/minor scenario, with merry, almost flippant outside movements surrounding a profound second movement lament in F minor that truly represents a marriage of the austere pain of the baroque era with the more impassioned tragic feelings of the classical era. Once again, the first half strays quickly to the warmth of A-flat Major, but the second half immerses itself totally in the despair of minor. The frolicsome first movement divides its attention between courtly teasing and an effervescent, bubbling series of runs and arabesques. The finale is a Presto in 2/4, which became almost a standard feature of Haydn’s sonatas. It is happy, contrapuntal and busy, and the end seems to suddenly just fly out the window.
The Sonatas No. 56 and 58 could easily be characterized as twins, but not quite identical ones. They both have just two movements, and each one start with a fairly extended set of variations in 3/4 which, typically, again, are split into major and minor modes, and they both end with a dashing 2/4 movement of great vitality and humour. Both first movements also achieve their suspense with a large number of sudden pauses.
The Sonata No. 56, Hob. XVI/42, is in D Major. Of special interest in the first movement is a passage in the middle of the variation in minor which is very similar in its punctuated dotted rhythm, shape and gesture to a passage in Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata—probably just a coincidence. Note how the simple theme becomes ever more extravagantly ornamented as the movement proceeds. The finale is exhilarating and breathlessly contrapuntal.
The Sonata No. 58, Hob. XVI/48, is in C Major, and by comparison with its twin, it is rounder and warmer thematically. Still, it sprinkles in a considerable amount of humour and tongue-in-cheek spurts of playfulness. Only the two minor interludes are more serious and expressive; the second one makes a colourful excursion to A-flat Major, followed by a triumphant restatement of the main theme in the highest octave of Haydn’s piano, two octaves higher than in the opening. Here the pauses are completely filled in with the gurgling accompaniment. The finale has plenty of surprises in store for us, including a rollicking central episode in minor akin to some of Beethoven’s “Turkish” interludes.
The Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI/52, written in 1794, is played more often than any other Haydn sonata, because it is pianistically more brilliant and harmonically more audacious than most of his other sonatas. The opening, with its massive full chords, brings us to quite a different musical landscape. The main theme is immediately reused, slightly less massively, in the dominant. Yet another theme is introduced, this one in a much lighter vein, prancing delicately with an infectious dotted rhythm, and is heard in two distant keys in the development. Near the end of the movement, after a pause, is a short, deliberately confusing harmonic excursion, which however leads us right back to the tonic.
The key relationship of the slow movement is truly exotic. It is in E Major, just a half step above the key of the outer movements. This startling shift rinses away every reminiscence of the first movement, and ushers in a breathtaking new world. It starts with a warm, expressive gesture, but soon makes clear that there will be a lot of subtle tomfoolery strewn into this Adagio. Only the short coda brings us a pure, sweet tenderness.
When the finale starts, with its repeated G’s, it seems, momentarily, that we might be migrating to E minor, but as soon the left hand enters, we wake up from our E Major dream and remember the tonality of the opening movement. Much of this extended finale exploits the six repeated notes heard at the beginning, sometimes as solitary single notes, and at other times as triumphant, full chords.
Haydn’s piano music is wholesome, entertaining, often quirky, and full of character. There are also moments and even whole movements of great profundity, but on the whole, as is also the case with Mozart, his deeper, more poignant and penetrating feelings are revealed much more in his masses, operas, symphonies and string quartets.
© Anton Kuerti