Byron Schenkman has played the harpsichord and fortepiano, but he experiments with a modern piano on this recording of Haydn keyboard works, most of them ambitious and in places quite startling. He is among a group of keyboard players who have been trying to apply the insights and techniques of fortepiano performance to modern piano readings, trading percussive impact for subtle balance, flash for agility, modern power for an appreciation of a composer's own sound world. In general he combines the virtues of piano and fortepiano effectively here, offering light, exact readings that use the modern piano to emphasize an interpretive point.
Schenkman has a sympathetic feel for Haydn, not shortchanging or skating over the composer's astonishing sense of humor. The enormous pauses that occur as Haydn works his way back to the tonic key in the first movement of the Sonata in C major, H. 16/35, elicit the proper "Well, I'll be damned" reaction in Schenkman's performance. He is on less solid ground in the intense C sharp minor and E minor sonatas that come second and third on the disc. These works, written around 1780, were examples of Haydn's use of the empfindsamer Stil pioneered by C.P.E. Bach. To modern ears it sounds dramatic, and, as Schenkman puts it in his notes, "introspective." But the empfindsamer Stil is a more conventional language than it now seems. Schenkman pushes the central Scherzando movement of the C sharp minor sonata too far in the direction of a nervous quality, missing the jocular tone implied by the very early use of the word "scherzando." Similarly, he makes too much of the dark Largo e sostenuto central movement of the Sonata in D major, H. 16/37, characterizing and playing it as a quasi-Baroque French overture. Such an anachronism wouldn't have made much sense to Haydn, who was simply writing a rhythmically rather intense example of the kind of slow movement that reached its apotheosis in Mozart's minor-key fantasias. Schenkman also has a tendency to hear Haydn's keyboard textures as evocations of those of other media, especially the symphony. It's hard to judge this position; once it's laid out, the ear tends to adopt it as it listens. But there is little evidence that Haydn thought about the keyboard in these terms.
Even if there is room to disagree with Schenkman's readings, they are nicely executed and beautifully recorded. And this is a rich program of Haydn's keyboard music, just the sort that's needed to raise its profile to that of his great works in other media.