Sebastian Knauer

Vienna 1789

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The stated intent of this Berlin Classics release is to situate the works of the mature Haydn, the soon-to-be-dead Mozart, and the young Beethoven at the dawn of the revolutionary movements that convulsed France going forward from 1789. Doubtless there is a connection between innovative music of the time and its revolutionary spirit. No historical theory is required to show that, for Viennese censors themselves were deathly afraid of The Marriage of Figaro. And Beethoven's radical innovations would take on political overtones soon enough. But correspondences of this kind inevitably break down when you try to wrap them up in a simple package, and that's what happens here. Pianist Sebastian Knauer starts out defending the thesis energetically in his own booklet notes, but he runs up against problems and more or less trails off into discussions of each individual work and its history. One of those problems is that only the Haydn Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob. 16/49, was actually composed in 1789; the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 27 is dated January 5, 1791, but may have been written as early as 1787, and the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat major, Op. 19, premiered in 1795, may have been based mostly on now-unknown materials written in Bonn around 1787 or 1788 (a time when Beethoven did, it's true, have an explicit interest in revolutionary politics). It's hard to say why these three works were chosen; the Mozart is rather conventional in style even if lovely in its execution, while the Haydn seems to be loaded with personal significance. So, what you get in the end is a rather edgy performance of the three works, defined in the two concertos as much by conductor Roger Norrington's work with the Zurich Chamber Orchestra as by that of Knauer at the keyboard; the orchestra's sound is tense, nearly vibratoless, and edgy, with rushed cadences. Knauer generally follows the orchestra's lead, delivering a light, quasi-spontaneous performance of the Haydn that makes it easy to imagine it being played for the work's dedicatee, Haydn's admirer and perhaps lover Marianne Grenzinger. The album may furnish some food for thought in considering the relationship between music and history, but there is little here that hasn't been done better or more insightfully elsewhere.

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