Yevgeny Sudbin Plays Haydn

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"Yevgeny Sudbin was born in St Petersburg and has lived in the UK since 1997. His previous outings on the BIS label, with recitals of Scarlatti (reviewed twice on these pages) and Scriabin have all been received to great acclaim, as has Sudbin’s concerto recordings for the same label...It is clearly apparent that Mr. Sudbin has established an enviable reputation, and for those to whom his name is already familiar, this release will be another shot in the arm of fine collections of piano recordings the world over.

There are quite a few rather special recordings of Haydn piano sonatas, but with 51 in the catalogue there are few pianists who would even consider tackling the whole lot, John McCabe on Decca being a distinguished exception, Jeno Jandó a highly competent if marginally less distinguished budget alternative on Naxos. There are a few fortepiano recordings both complete and ongoing, the Brilliant Classics one offers a different kind of Haydn to that on a modern grand piano, as does the excellent BIS complete set played by Ronald Brautigam. A pianist whose recordings have impressed me in recent years is Ragna Schirmer, and hers is the kind of cleanly unpretentious and witty playing with which I would compare Yevgeny Sudbin’s performances here. Schirmer gives Haydn every chance to shine and blossom in recordings which are crisp and full of colour, warm and clear at the same time, carrying us away with the music’s message, alive to the echoes of past music and the surprisingly potent emotional charge which can be surprising to find in this composer.

This is not so much a ‘better than’ kind of review, but I find it is useful to have a reference and a starting point from which to evaluate a new recording of an idiom which is familiar, even if the pieces don’t overlap. Yevgeny Sudbin has that lightness of touch which is essential for good Haydn, and especially good Haydn at the keyboard. The opening Allegro moderato movement of the Sonata No.47 in B minor says much about the rest of this programme, with richness of contrast and moments of drama fully exploited between music of almost naive simplicity. This simplicity is as important to Sudbin as every other aspect of this music. The thinning of texture to two-part lines which suggest harmony as much as proclaim it are all superbly rendered, sometimes held to the middle of the keyboard, sometimes turning the left hand into and orchestral bass section or a driving rhythmic leaping thing which serves multiple functions. The Minuet of this sonata is a development on this kind of purity of expression, and Sudbin knows exactly what he is doing, shaping phrases with elegance and a sense of proportion which seems to provide all answers: ‘yes, this is how it should sound.’

If I were to compare Sudbin and Schirmer then, by a small margin, Sudbin seems to explore depths ‘into’ or ‘within’ the notes a bit more, digging a little deeper where Schirmer sparkles and shines with a more twinkly kind of wit. This is all by a marginal degree however – Sudbin sparkles and Schirmer digs as well, just take the Finale: presto of this sonata for some crackling at the keyboard from Sudbin, with the minor key providing a reason for that extra layer of dark passion.

Following a minor key with a major, in this case the Sonata No.60 in C major is a good idea, and Sudbin lifts us high and carries us all the way in the opening Allegro, which is as full of smiles as a comedy turn by Michael Macintyre. His own booklet notes tell us something of how Sudbin approaches Haydn: “Is laughter the best medicine? I certainly hope so and would not hesitate to prescribe a healthy dose of Joseph Haydn twice daily.” Haydn’s humour is not to be found in heavy jokes, but in the very nature of the music itself. Any darkness is more often than not provided as a foil a contrast to those delightful moments of wit, and sometimes, as in this movement the ideas are so fun-filled that such moments need only be held for a few bars in the minor, or a segment of sublime beauty at 6:50 where the pedal suspends the music on a waft of mist for a mere moment. Sublime beauty is the essence of the Adagio of this sonata, and Sudbin traverses its measures with a good deal of freedom, creating a fascinating musical narrative in which you can become lost for what seems like a good deal longer than its 5:53 duration, but which you would gladly have last for a dreaming while longer. Sudbin has combined some of the original material from an earlier version of this movement, which was later revised to fit in with the outer movements of the sonata. I admire this kind of creative license and research based attitude, getting the best out of the music by exploring further beyond the notes on the page than would most musicians. The results certainly speak for themselves.

Elements of Scarlatti appear with the rippling passing ornaments thrown in with effortless ease by Sudbin in the Sonata No.53 in E minor. The contrast between the spectacular Presto and the almost invisible following Adagio could hardly be greater. Sudbin plays the Adagio with such transparency that light and air shine through the whole time: it’s like a single mote of dust floating down to land, slowly and gently, onto a crystal shimmering in a bath of late afternoon sunlight. The sunshine moods anticipate Beethoven in the final Vivace molto, with quicksilver harmonic twists and turns which are still pretty breathtaking even 230 years after they were conceived. About one minute in the mood shifts several gears at once, and we are taken on a journey far beyond expectations.

The Andante con Variazioni follows and refines the model of C.P.E. Bach, involving major and minor variations alternately. Some say this was written as a kind of memorial to Mozart for, although there are smiling moments, these are as poignant as they are jovial, and the mood of the music is certainly more tragic than comic. Refinement and poise, sensitivity and grace are all words which spring to mind for both the piece and this performance, which is given with admirable restraint, reserving the emotional core of the work for a penultimate outburst at 12:39.

To end the programme with a flourish, Yevgeny Sudbin gives us an encore in the form of his arrangement or ‘pianistic impression’ of the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Op.64 No.5. “I find [the string quartets] all addictive. Just as his sonatas are incredibly communicative and chamber-music like, his chamber music strikes me as having a very pianistic potential.” Larking with Haydn is therefore Sudbin’s ‘affectionate tribute’ to the Great Master, and one which fits in very well with the vibrant nature of the release as a whole. In fact this whole disc is of course a fine tribute to Haydn, showing once again how alive and resonant his music even today. The entertainment factor is high with this disc, but superficial show is never the basis of the music or the playing. I’m a big fan of the St George’s pleasantly resonant acoustic, and it works very well for the solo piano and this music, with the SACD quality transplanting you straight to Bristol’s top chamber music location. Superbly recorded performances such as these do exactly what Sudbin hopes, seeing Haydn “taken much more seriously, in an unserious sort of way.”

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: BIS-SACD-1788

  • UPC: 7318599917887

  • Label: BIS

  • Composer: Franz Joseph Haydn

  • Performer: Yevgeny Sudbin