Leon McCawley: Haydn Sonatas

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Haydn’s Piano Sonatas (he composed more than 50, but academics lack certainty about the provenance of some) must be of all the great bodies of “core repertoire” still one of the least programmed. Respected by all but advanced by fewer, the Sonatas perhaps suffer from being perceived as too intimate for larger concert halls, too athletically lacklustre for the endless competition circuit, and thus difficult to market.

Whatever the justification for this neglect, the Sonatas have fared better on disc. In particular, John McCabe’s celebrated complete survey for Decca in the 1970’s has long been, for me at least, not simply a benchmark interpretation but one of my most treasured piano boxed sets.

There have been some fine recordings of Haydn in more recent years, too, notably from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, Yevgeny Sudbin and Paul Lewis, but none so far that have compelled me to loosen my grip on my beloved McCabe set. Until now.

SOMM have just released the fourth volume in British pianist Leon McCawley’s ongoing cycle, and in my view it is shaping up to be a new milestone, The One to go for in this increasingly populated field…

Sonatas Volume IV

The latest instalment in this ongoing cycle was recorded at The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon in December 2020, McCawley playing on a Steinway ‘D’ Concert Grand. Hardly the instrument that Haydn wrote for of course, so it is to McCawley’s immense credit that he brings to these performances the lightness of touch and classical sensibility that so many other pianists seem to miss.

With a palpable sense of vitality, elan and the good humour for which Haydn is famous, this is Haydn playing as it should be, and I cannot overstate how disappointingly rare this seems to be.

Having masterfully recorded some of the most famous Sonatas on the first two volumes (which I will recap shortly), and establishing a pattern for mixing the earlier and later works, Volume IV brings us the following embarrassment of riches:

  • Sonata No.48 in C major, Hob.XVI:35
  • Sonata No.1 in G major, Hob. XVI:8
  • Sonata No.35 in A-flat major, Hob. XVI:43
  • Sonata No.49 in C-sharp minor, Hob. XVI:36
  • Sonata No.51 in E-flat major, Hob. XVI:38
  • Sonata No.30 in D major, Hob. XVI:19

Listening to this selection of works composed over many years of Haydn’s long musical development, both the unity and contrast are striking: works on a growing scale equally underpinned by Haydn’s identifiably humane and unique musical character. As Robert Matthew-Walker reminds us in his excellent CD booklet note,

“Haydn’s Piano Sonatas range over the late-Baroque to early Beethoven eras, mirroring the development of the instrument from clavichord and harpsichord to the fortepianos of various manufacturers. Consequently, Haydn’s approach to the instrument may sometimes be equally termed experimental, reflecting the greater range and compass of the emerging pianoforte keyboard…”

The sense of experimentation combined with playfulness is never far from the listeners mind, thanks to McCawley’s emotional intelligence, enthusiastic musicality and inquisitive wit interpreting these magnificent works.

For an object lesson, piano teachers and students need look no further than McCawley’s masterful delivery of the G major Sonata, a piece invariably found in elementary anthologies (around UK Grade 2), but performed here with an eloquence and musical imagination that is light-years away beyond that suggested by stale expectations.

That so little distinguishes this modest work from the diploma-level Sonatas elsewhere on the disc speaks to the artistry of McCawley, and his dedication to presenting the music with equality, conviction and love from start to finish.

Taking Stock of the Series

A disc such as this does not appear or exist in isolation, and I was naturally interested to explore the previous three issues in McCawley’s cycle, all of which have left me similarly wondering whether I will still be listening to McCabe a decade from now!

For the Haydn novice, I cannot but recommend the first disc in the series as the most fitting starting point, which includes the evergreen Sonata in C minor Hob. XVI:20, the mighty E-flat major Sonata Hob. XVI:52, and a gorgeous and nuanced performance of the exquisite Variations in F minor Hob. XVII:6.

Also included on the first disc, the popular “London” Sonata in C major Hob. XVI:50 is a telling indication of McCawley’s preeminence in this repertoire. It is a work I have performed myself (including on a Broadwood 1790’s fortepiano in the museum of London’s Royal College of Music), making it special for me, and which has been recorded by a more significant array of contemporary artists than most Haydn.

Comparisons are generally a blunt way to discuss great art, but how are we to select a recording? In this instance I find Paul Lewis rather brash, Lang Lang’s hurried Carnegie Hall live performance lacking in musical detail, Sudbin’s recording a little ponderous. For sheer audacity, I must however salute Giovanni Mazzocchin’s period-informed 2018 recording of the late Sonatas.

McCawley, meanwhile, offers the most perfectly-pitched tempo and clarity: his performance alone in my view deserves the accolade of “benchmark”.

The six Sonatas on the second of McCawley’s discs open with that most joyous Sonata, the D major Hob. XVI:37, taking in the expressivity of the F minor Hob. XVI:47 and C major Hob. XVI:48, culminating in the popular E-flat major Sonata Hob. XVI:49.

The third disc explores Sonatas that are perhaps less-played, and as such offers another window to Haydn’s seemingly inexhaustible creativity, and McCawley’s wonderful way with this repertoire.

In summary, the whole series can be given the highest of recommendations. Here is a Haydn cycle for the 21st century, and I can’t wait to hear the next instalment!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.