Franz Joseph Haydn’s Piano Sonatas Numbers 29, 31, 34, 35 and 49, Emanuel Ax, piano

cover art for Hayden piano sonatasFranz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is one of the two giants of the Classical Period, the other being Mozart; like Mozart, Haydn’s music has been viewed in recent years, unjustly, as rococo, “snuff-box” music — charming, pleasant and good-natured. The name “Haydn” too often conveys an image of a kindly grandfather-figure, writing the kind of “nice” music that one associates with eighteenth-century drawing rooms and the powdered-wig wearing people who inhabit them. Haydn is given further disservice by his association with Mozart and early Beethoven: by virtue of Haydn’s inspiration of both men, he is too easily relegated to secondary status behind them.

As a longtime listener of classical music, I have been as guilty of this as anyone. My own collection contains very little Haydn. This is a shame, because the present disc, containing five of Haydn’s sonatas for piano, is a pleasure. Part of an ongoing cycle of recordings in which Emmanuel Ax explores Haydn’s underappreciated sonatas, this disc contains five works, ranging from the Sonata #29 in E-Flat Major to #49 in C-sharp Minor. One might expect a CD of five works, all of similar form and number of movements, to take on an air of “sameness,” but that doesn’t happen here — a testament both to Haydn’s compositions and to Ax’s performances.

The melodic material in Haydn’s piano sonatas is not as directly accessible as in Mozart, but Haydn’s gifts for form and effect still shine through, especially in those movements composed in minuet form. Three of the sonatas here feature minuets, with two of them coming as finales instead of the more common rondos. The minuet, a form blithely discounted today, often provided Haydn with his greatest inspiration. These are not the minuets that so often show up in intermediary piano books.

The recording is pleasant, except for the loudest passages, when a certain shrillness creeps in; otherwise, the piano tone is warm and exacting. The liner notes are serviceable; I would have preferred a paragraph or two from Ax himself, presenting his thoughts on these works as he records his cycle. Still, this is an excellent recording of repertoire not nearly familiar enough.

(Sony Classical, 2003)