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Jean-Efflam Bavouzet has released a rare, 11-volume collection of the composer’s 62 piano sonatas.
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Jean-Efflam Bavouzet faced both good and bad news in 1989.
This French pianist, still then making his way as what a New York Times review from around that time called “a rigorously severe modernist,” had earned his first recording contract, with a small label of impeccable taste.
But at the same time, his right hand had been diagnosed with functional dystonia, a painful muscle condition that has blighted the careers of many musicians.
Unable to bite into octaves as he usually could, Bavouzet had to abandon his hopes of recording Bartok. What to do instead? He eventually chose Haydn, four or five of whose piano sonatas he had in his repertoire at the time. It was just about the only music he could still play.
Cleanly articulated, a little cheeky and taking the composer seriously but never too seriously, the tone of that buoyant recording was amply summed up by the title of the booklet notes that his fellow pianist Zoltan Kocsis wrote for the release: “Haydn Without Wig.”
Three decades later, that is exactly what Bavouzet, 59, has delivered on a far greater scale with the release last month of the 11th and final volume in his flamboyant, ebullient, brilliant survey of Haydn’s 62 sonatas on the Chandos label, with a few sets of variations and some other works thrown in for the fun of it.
An addition, 13 years in the making, to a discography that already includes similarly excellent explorations of Debussy and Beethoven, Bavouzet’s Haydn is unmatched in its zest and its wit. But it is also substantial, informed and deeply rewarding.
Moreover, it is a scarce achievement. Routine is the pianist of stature who records the Beethoven sonatas, but pianists who release even one or two albums of Haydn are all too rare, and few indeed have paid the arguably underperformed composer such sustained attention.
“I did it with the most intense pleasure,” Bavouzet said in an interview. “Out of 62 sonatas, you have probably 25 indisputable masterpieces that we know, that are on concert programs — not enough, but still. Playing them is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. But they didn’t bring me the same joy as discovering the much less-known sonatas and bringing them to life.”
The spirit of discovery suffuses every bar that Bavouzet has recorded, whether reinterpreting one of the almost symphonically sonorous sonatas from Haydn’s days in London in the early 1790s, or reinvigorating a slighter, two-voiced partita or divertimento from the late 1750s.
“Haydn wrote all these sonatas almost as a laboratory of musical experience, an IRCAM for its time,” Bavouzet said, referring to the French avant-garde institute that Pierre Boulez founded in 1977. “These were a place where he could experiment and see what works.”
It’s the distinctly forward-thinking quality Bavouzet hears in Haydn that makes his set an especially valuable antidote to the view that all but the latest or the grandest of the composer’s piano works offer meager fare compared with his string quartets or symphonies — the idea that they are pieces written for amateurs that require “all our historical sympathy” to appreciate now, as the pianist Charles Rosen, a Haydn interpreter himself, wrote in “The Classical Style.”
“When I was a student at the Paris Conservatory in the late ’70s, early ’80s,” Bavouzet recalled, “Haydn was a composer you would consider playing if you were not totally, fully equipped to master a Beethoven sonata — a composer that was too ‘easy,’ so to speak.”
But Bavouzet was convinced otherwise by hearing Sviatoslav Richter play four of the sonatas at La Grange de Meslay, an abbey near Tours, France, where the Russian master held an annual festival. Richter had 19 of the sonatas in his repertoire, and counted the composer among his favorites.
“Dear Haydn, how I love you!” Richter wrote privately in 1971. “But other pianists? They’re rather lukewarm towards you. Which is a great shame.”
Bavouzet, who recalled taking Martha Argerich’s mother along to the performance, said: “We went to hear the maestro, Richter, of course, but we were thinking, four sonatas of Haydn — that’s very light, that’s not a real concert program. The revelation was that when the concert finished, we were totally fed with centuries of musical gestures. Richter did not miss any opportunities to make it sound as modern, as striking as possible. It was incredible, how Richter played Haydn onstage.”
From Richter, Bavouzet borrowed a taste for playing Haydn on a Yamaha piano, and he is equally eager to draw connections across the centuries in his own work. “I love the analogy of Haydn throwing arrows into the future,” he said, “and these arrows land on the page of Schumann, of Brahms, of Prokofiev, of Stravinsky.”
Sometimes those arrows don’t fly terribly far, though they still strike true. The slow movement of No. 50, as numbered by the scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, is a Largo e sostenuto in D minor, and stares straight at its kin in Beethoven, the brooding Largo e mesto of Op. 10 No. 3; draw out the dramatic opening of No. 33 in C minor, the most substantial of the earlier works, and you find yourself in the anguished sound world of Schubert’s last sonata.
But in other works, Haydn displays the range of a longbowman. The Moderato of No. 44 in F looks to Prokofiev with its repeated notes; the trio of No. 12 in A, when practiced at half the speed, struck the pianist as being so close to Chopin or even Scriabin that he recorded it that way as a postscript to the fifth volume; the Adagio of the Piano Concerto in G, among the three that Bavouzet recorded as a side project with Gabor Takacs-Nagy and the Manchester Camerata, inspired a nod to Poulenc in its cadenza.
If Bavouzet feels free to engage in a little bit of anachronism when the time seems right — partly inspired by period-instrument pioneers like Paul Badura-Skoda, his Haydn has a touch more spontaneity to it than Paul Lewis’s strict rigor or Marc-André Hamelin’s awe-inspiring bravura allows in their hugely admirable recent recordings — that’s because the composer left the pianist plenty of choices to make, especially in the earlier works.
“What I will miss the most, now that I have covered everything,” Bavouzet said, “is the joy of discovering one of the early sonatas, where you have absolutely no indications, and it is sight-readable quite easily, but you start working on it and there is the feeling of a bottomless well.”
Recording Haydn’s sonatas, in other words, is not entirely like recording Beethoven’s, even after a decision has been taken as to how to make enjoyable, coherent programs out of them. Beethoven’s scores are comparatively explicit about how they should be played, although they are, of course, open to interpretation. Haydn’s are far less so.
“You try to dig,” Bavouzet continued, “and every time you dig you find new beauties, and new ideas, and you start embellishing, putting clothes on a rather naked skeleton, and you try to have a valid dynamic plan, and your interpretation takes shape, trying to make it as interesting as possible, with your taste, with your instinct, with the knowledge you have. You have this joy of bringing it to life with all the tools you can imagine.”
Sometimes the problems are specific to a work — how to interpret the crazily brief finale of No. 41, for instance, in which Bavouzet imagines that Haydn suddenly decided that he had something else to do the day he wrote — but the pressing ones are common. There is ornamentation, or an implied cadenza.
Then there is the fraught issue of whether to take repeats indicated in the second halves of sonata-form movements — a practice Haydn adhered to but his successors sought to escape from — and, if so, whether to include codas within the repeats, so that the endings would effectively be played twice. Consulting with the scholars Laszlo Somfai and Marc Vignal for the sake of historical accuracy, Bavouzet found himself moving repeat markings around for the sake of flow.
One aspect of the choices involved in filling in Haydn’s blanks has convinced Bavouzet that these works are much more profound than they often get credit for. “We easily forget that the solemn Adagio,” another great champion of the composer, Alfred Brendel, once wrote in an article about Schubert, “originated in Haydn.”
If Haydn the joker is amply on display here, the pauses that he so often uses before delivering his punch lines can suggest something much deeper, Bavouzet said.
“You can read them as a pause to have an effect on what comes next,” he said, “but you also can read them as a pause of reflection, a moment when Haydn asks if all this agitation and activity is actually in vain. He is stopping because he is doubting, in a moment of introspection, which of course gives a totally different, almost philosophical attitude to this continuous energy.”
That’s particularly true, Bavouzet said, of the later sonatas, as in the first movement of No. 43 in E minor, which has 14 pauses to deal with, or in the finale of the culminating sonata, No. 62 in E flat, which is the last work programmed in his collection aside from a little Allegretto that he offers as an epilogue, holding the pedal down in dreamy nostalgia for his years of work.
“The task is never anything other than absolutely fascinating, but for the performer it is also testing, and even risky,” Bavouzet writes of all these decisions in the booklet notes for his sixth volume, defending a mini-cadenza of his that takes the jolly finale of No. 36 in a momentarily dark direction.
“He must, even more than usual, create his own world, his own logic, left only to hope that, in the absence of tangible evidence, he will not distance himself too far from the composer’s intentions, which remain forever unknowable,” Bavouzet continues. “The more my work progresses down this course, the more an almost infinite horizon of interpretive possibilities opens up before me, all of them valid.”
And that, this project confirms, is one of the many elations of Haydn.


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