Robert Hill

Joseph Haydn: Sonatas & Divertimenti

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Originally recorded in the year 2000, this album of early Haydn keyboard music by American-German harpsichordist Robert Hill continued to sound unusual upon its issue by the Ars Musici label nine years later. This is not a mainstream Haydn keyboard sonata disc, or necessarily one to start with for those who've heard the more famous sonatas from later in Haydn's career and want to explore the beginnings of his engagement with keyboard music. Hill's thesis, explained in his interesting but rather circuitous notes (given in German, English, and French), is that the generally straightforward use of the usual two-manual harpsichord of the 18th century over the last several decades, not only in Haydn but in the music of Bach and other earlier composers, has been "conservative," in response to the "excesses" of the super-powered harpsichords of the early 20th century. Part of the evidence for his contention is the survival of various harpsichords from the era with such unusual dynamic and textural effects as swells, extra octave registers, and unusual quill materials such as buffalo leather. Hill does not actually apply one of these, but instead essentially pushes the capabilities of a more mainstream item, a copy of a 1769 Parisian instrument made by the maverick American builder Keith Hill. He uses registration to create structural contrasts between repeated sections of music and provides more colorful effects in correspondingly chromatic areas such as the development sections in Haydn's incipient sonata forms. The slow movements may begin with pizzicato but shift to the normal registration. How does it work? Only time will tell whether Hill's approach will gain traction, but a preliminary reaction might be that it's more appropriate to some sonatas than to others. All the music here, despite the high numbers of some of the works, was composed before about 1767, and all, as Hill rightly argues, belong in the sonata category even if some of the works are titled divertimenti. They fall roughly into two groups: galant, with short, balanced movements and an atmosphere of light wit, and proto-Sturm und Drang, with a fairly lengthy opening movement encompassing harmonic experimentation and what Hill calls "self-expressive traits." The second group, in which Hill rightly finds the acknowledged influence of C.P.E. Bach, is exemplified by the Keyboard Sonata in A flat major, Hob. 16/46; the first by the opening Keyboard Sonata in C major, Hob. 16/1, of about 1760. In the second group, the development sections and the harmonic development of each movement as a whole takes on a somewhat fantastic aspect that's very appealing and entirely in keeping with the "interior" qualities of the music. In the shorter works, Hill's effects perhaps work to disturb the precise balance that makes them tick and that was crucial to the development of Haydn's sense of humor. Other reactions are certainly possible, and the album is well worth hearing as long as you know what you're getting into. The sound is unusually good and reflects the performer's intentions in detail.

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