Eva Mengelkoch

Haydn: Sonatas Hob. 19, 20, 23, 32

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This two-disc release may be unique in its concept: it offers a group of five Haydn keyboard sonatas, played on fortepiano (a copy of a 1784 Walter instrument) on the first disc and on a modern Steinway grand on the second. Keyboardist Eva Mengelkoch, a professor at Towson University in Baltimore with training on both modern and keyboard instruments, doesn't write the last word on this approach, but as the cost of musical reproduction approaches absolute zero, it's an approach that is sure to become more common, and hers is a worthy opening shot. Her aim is not simply to draw a contrast between the two pianos for listeners unfamiliar with historical instruments (although that too might be a worthwhile exercise if applied to the right repertory). Nor is she crusading in favor of the use of the fortepiano. Instead, she writes, "Finding the most expressive and stylistically satisfying interpretation requires a continuous process of mutual interrogation between the capabilities of each instrument and the possibilities incipient in the musical score." What this means in Haydn's case is the use of the fortepiano's heavy attacks and short tone sustain to articulate motivic details, and the use of the modern piano for its well-known power and ability to fill large spaces. Her interpretations of each sonata differ widely between the fortepiano and modern versions. The sonatas here do not all postdate the acquisition of a fortepiano at Esterháza castle, but there's at least a case to be made for playing the earlier ones on a fortepiano; the Keyboard Sonata in C minor, H. 16/20, for example, contains dynamic markings and may have been intended for a clavichord. Mengelkoch delivers on her goal of asking what her instrument can do with the music and forging an interpretation that takes that into account, even if some of her readings are a bit idiosyncratic in themselves. In the opening movement of the big, late Piano Sonata in C major, H. 16/50, the fortepiano version contains a rather strange emphasis on some incidental syncopated rhythms in cadential material, among other details; these are smoothed out considerably on the Steinway. In general, her fortepiano readings are spiky and irregular, her modern readings smoother and more brilliant. This works within the parameters she sets up, but there's no reason it should necessarily be done this way. The university recital-hall sound is a negative, making Mengelkoch's fortepiano sound unnecessarily harsh. But this is an interesting and forward-looking experiment.

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