Ragna Schirmer

Joseph Haydn Revisited

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This album by young German pianist Ragna Schirmer is subtitled "Revisited" probably because it is the artist's second of music by Haydn for the Berlin Classics label. But the word might apply equally well to Schirmer's programming approach, which mixes Haydn sonatas (no longer rare items) with smaller keyboard works. Such pieces as the "Katharinen-Tänze," a set of 12 minuets (Hob. 9/11) not so commonly heard, and a mixed program that gives listeners a break between the more substantial sonatas makes musical sense. Schirmer further breaks those minuets up into three groups of four, which is perhaps just how a pianist of Haydn's time would have done it. They're fascinating little works, not out-and-out humorous like so many of Haydn's symphonic minuets, but little fields of experiment in which Haydn used a simple canvas to work out details of his musical language, such as how long a slightly unorthodox harmony could be left to hang or what weight an interval outside the conventional triad could bear. The keyboard sonatas themselves, though they pose few technical difficulties, have lately shown themselves susceptible to an extraordinary range of interpretations. Next to such auteur-like creations as Marc-André Hamelin's sonata performances, Schirmer's are circumspect, but they're clear, detailed, lightly witty where necessary, perhaps cognizant of fortepiano interpretations. She takes the repeats, often ornamenting them. Schirmer has picked up prizes and critical acclaim in Germany itself, and she seems to be an avatar of the postwar German school, capable of agile, sparkling performances that never flag or waver. It's no surprise that she's taken to Haydn; his sonatas are full of quirky little utterances that she succeeds in honing into sharp bits of rhetoric. It's possible that a single disc would have allowed her to do what she wanted to do; the second disc here, with its piano transcription of the variations on "Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser," from the String Quartet in C major, Op. 76/3, and another transcription of a piece for flute-clock, is on the thin side. But the engineering represents one of Berlin Classics' finer efforts, and in general this is a release that will cause a lot of listeners to "revisit" Haydn's keyboard music.

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