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CD review: A luminous start for a complete series of Haydn piano sonatas

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Haydn Piano Sonatas Vol. 1, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (on a Chandos CD or downloaded from iTunes)

French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet likes the comprehensive. His recordings of Debussy’s complete works for piano, on five discs, are a revelation: precise and atmospheric and emphasizing the exotic strangeness — a certain tangy, “Oriental” quality — that’s imbedded within Debussy’s music but too rarely brought to the surface.

Now Bavouzet has launched a complete survey of Franz Joseph Haydn’s piano sonatas, also on Chandos, a British label. Volume 1, sensationally enjoyable, includes four oft-recorded sonatas from the late 1760s and 1770s, when the advancing technology of the fortepiano had supplanted the harpsichord.

The pianist’s witty ornamentation and remarkably sensitive touch at the keys illuminate how Haydn’s profundity and invention are always fused with a sense of spontaneity and playfulness, whether it’s the presto finale of the D Major Sonata No. 39, a sort of retro-Baroque dance movement, or the unstoppable urgency of the B minor Sonata No. 47.

Yet the main theme of No. 39’s slow middle movement, a gently curved melody, is achingly lovely, deeply felt. Bavouzet is a complete pianist. He makes a big Yamaha CFIIIS instrument sound exquisitely subtle, and puts the composer into the context of his contemporaries and the Baroque, a bit closer to Scarlatti, perhaps, than to the heavier Austro-German style that came later, of heroic Beethoven.

Scholars still debate how many sonatas Haydn composed, how many were lost and how many in the catalog are not actually by Haydn. A total of 54 extant sonatas is a convincing estimate. I hope Bavouzet records other things in the meantime, but this Haydn series should be a fresh delight for years to come.

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