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Franz Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809): "6 Sonatas for Violin and Viola"

Anton Steck, violin; Christian Goosses, viola

rec: Sept 26 - 28, 2008, Berlin, Siemensvilla
Accent - ACC 24219 (© 2009) (70'54")

Sonata in F (H VI,1); Sonata in A (H VI,2); Sonata in B flat (H VI,3); Sonata in D (H VI,4); Sonata in E flat (H VI,5); Sonata in C (H VI,6)

Was the Haydn year 2009 of any use? Does a composer of his stature really need a commemoration year? Don't we know everything he has written and isn't everything recorded yet? If it was about Mozart, I probably would say 'yes', although the ongoing recording of the complete music Mozart wrote for the keyboard by Siegbert Rampe (MDG) contains several first recordings. But Haydn is still not fully appreciated, and a number of his works are hardly known and recorded.

The six Sonatas for violin and viola (H VI,1-6) belong to that category. Only a couple of recordings are or have been on the market, and as far as I know Anton Steck and Christian Goosses are the first who have recorded them on period instruments. It seems even in standard books about Haydn these sonatas are hardly given attention, if they are mentioned at all. That is surprising, both because of their quality and because they were widespread in Haydn's time which is a sign that they were greatly appreciated.

We mostly don't think of Haydn as a performer, let alone a virtuoso on any instrument. This may be partly due to the fact that Haydn played down his skills as a player of the keyboard or the violin. The booklet quotes him as writing: "I was a wizard on no instrument, but I knew the power and the effect of all; I was not a bad keyboard player and singer, and I could perform a concerto on the violin". But that probably tells more about the character of the man than of his capabilities. After all, he was leading the orchestral concerts at Esterháza from the first desk, and he also participated in performances of string quartets. That suggests he was more than just a good violinist.

The sonatas for violin and viola could well support this conclusion. In particular the first movements are quite virtuosic, and as, according to Andreas Friesenhagen in his programme notes, there are reasons to believe Haydn played the violin part himself, these can only lead to the conclusion that Haydn was much more skilled at the violin than he himself was willing to admit.

The sonatas are no duos for violin and viola. In fact, one could consider them pieces for violin solo, like Bach's Sonatas and Partitas. There is far less double stopping, though, and here it is the viola which delivers the harmony. One of the most remarkable movements is the opening allegro moderato of the Sonata in F which contains an episode in which the violin and the viola both use double stopping at the same time.

All six sonatas consist of three movements. The first are in a moderate tempo: andante, moderato or allegro moderato. The only exception is the Sonata in C, the last of the set, which begins with an allegro. Apart from being virtuosic they are often quite dramatic. The slow movements are adagios (adagio sostenuto in the Sonata in F), and are highly expressive. They all end with a cadenza. Every sonata ends with a menuet with variations. These menuets are sparkling and often quite witty.

The identical structure, the variation in keys as well as the number of the sonatas - six was the common number of pieces in an opus in the 18th century - suggests they were conceived as a set. The popularity of these sonatas is shown by arrangements for two violins and for violin and bass. The latter opens the possibility of performing them with basso continuo, which would be a nice addition to the repertoire for violin and bc.

It is hard to imagine better performances than Anton Steck and Christian Goosses are delivering here. Anton Steck is a real virtuoso as he has proven in previous recordings, for instance of some of Vivaldi's most demanding violin concertos. But he is also a very expressive player as he shows in the slow movements of these sonatas. And the dramatic character of the first movements is well realised in his strongly gestural and theatrical interpretation. Christian Goosses plays the accompanying viola part also very well. The ensemble is immaculate, and these two players are congenial partners in these sonatas.

It is difficult to understand why these sonatas are generally neglected. The quality of the music and the interpretation makes this disc one of the most important additions of the catalogue of Haydn's music on disc. It also increases our knowledge of Haydn as a player and a composer. It is this kind of recordings which are the raison d'ętre of a commemoration year.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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