Haydn and the Art of Variation

Carole Cerasi

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Haydn and the Art of Variation Review

by James Manheim

Historical keyboardist Carole Cerasi has an unusual background: Sephardic, Turkish, Swedish, and British, with French as her first language. Her Haydn readings here are just about as distinctive. They are challenging indeed, and rewarding as well. The cover bills the album as a study of Haydn and the art of variation, but that's only half the story. The other half is an entirely individual attempt to reimagine Haydn's sound world. It's based on the idea that that sound world was an intimate one that Haydn created his keyboard music, especially, for the rooms of a palace rather than for any kind of a concert hall at all. Cerasi isn't the first to think about Haydn this way, but she goes in a different direction from the others: her Haydn is extraordinarily percussive, intense, almost violent at times. It is difficult to square her way of playing the first movement of the Piano Sonata in G major, Hob. 16/40, with its "innocentemente" marking, and in general there's not a harmonic turn or a minor point of emphasis in the music that isn't marked with considerable force. The early Keyboard Sonata in D major, Hob. 16/19, is played not on the usual harpsichord but on a clavichord, a welcome increase in the still-small collection of recordings using this common instrument of the Classical era. With its range of dynamics and accents, the clavichord fits with Cerasi's concept, and she delivers an entirely revelatory reading of this sonata. Perhaps her idea for the program as a whole is that the variation form, which is featured in one form or another in all these pieces, calls for this kind of style, and the variation set that makes up perhaps the high point of Haydn's keyboard output, the Andante and Variations in F minor, Hob. 17/6, receives one of its most dramatic readings of all time here. Cerasi has recorded the music of C.P.E. Bach, and here she seems to imagine that Haydn extended the so-called Sturm und Drang aspect of that composer's personality in a wide variety of works, especially those containing variation sets. It's an idea some listeners will find extreme, but the adjectives gutsy and arresting also apply. Cerasi's 1795 Schantz fortepiano from Vienna, beautifully restored and resident in a British collection, is an attraction in itself, as is the modern, very guitar-like clavichord, and both are nicely recorded.

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