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Tom Beghin is an expert in 18th-century rhetoric, and he’s no slouch at the 21st- century variety either, claiming in his booklet notes to The Virtual Haydn: ‘These discs challenge all conventions of performing, recording, and listening.’ Really? That ‘all’ is surely more rhetorical than literal truth; yet his excitement is understandable, given the time, care and expertise lavished on this project, not least the actual reconstruction of seven 18th- century keyboard instruments and the virtual reconstruction of nine 18th- century rooms.

Beghin’s initial plan was to record Haydn’s complete works for solo keyboard on a selection of appropriate historical instruments – or, rather, on copies that he had commissioned, because ‘newly built instruments are simply much better and much more reliable’. Then he met ‘virtual acoustics architect’ Wieslaw Woszczyk, a colleague at Montreal’s McGill University, who convinced him that recording in a selection of appropriate historical acoustics was no less essential. Beghin identified nine performance spaces that were either well known to Haydn (including rooms at Esterháza, at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt and at the composer’s own house in Eisenstadt) or that represented plausible alternatives for spaces that no longer existed (so Oxford’s Holywell Music Room stood in for London’s long-vanished Hanover Square Rooms). He and Woszczyk visited these locations to sample and map their acoustical properties, which Woszczyk then recreated back in the recording studio, immersing Beghin in a virtual acoustic that allowed him to respond to ‘the room’ as he played.

These processes are explained more fully in the booklet notes and on the accompanying DVD, which features a 104-minute documentary about the project, plus a 46-minute video of Beghin performing and a ‘7x9 Matrix’, which gives listeners the chance to hear Haydn’s Andante for Musical Clock (Hob XIX:10) played on any of the seven keyboards in any of the nine rooms.

Even on the CDs, it is not hard to recognise the distinctive timbral qualities of each instrument (the rooms are another matter, to which I’ll return). Beghin performs Haydn’s earlier solo works on either a Saxon-style clavichord or a Leydecker Viennese ‘multiple-broken octave’ harpsichord, and the 1774 Sonatas dedicated to Prince Nicolaus Esterházy (Hob XVI:21-26) on a French-style double manual harpsichord. The later works are divided between four different pianos. He plays the 1776 Sonatas (Hob XVI:27-32) and the three 1784 Sonatas dedicated to Princess Marie Esterházy (Hob XVI:40-42) on a 1788 Kober Viennese square piano; the 1780 Auenbrugger sonatas (Hob XVI:35-39, 20) on a 1782 Walter fortepiano fitted with a ‘stoss’ action; the later Viennese works, including the great F minor Variations (Hob XVII:6), on the same Walter, but fitted with a newer, ‘prell’ action; and the 1794 London Sonatas (Hob XVI:50-52) on a 1798 Longman, Clementi & Co English grand.

Beghin is alert to the specific capabilities of each keyboard and generally makes shrewd choices in matching them to the demands of each set of works. I was surprised, however, by his decision to assign the lovely E flat Sonata (Hob XVI:49), which Haydn composed for his close friend Maria Anna von Genzinger, to the ‘prell’ action Walter grand, despite arguing in his booklet notes that Haydn ‘almost certainly’ recommended she play it on a ‘stoss’ action square piano. Nevertheless, he plays it sympathetically, making sensitive use of the wider range of dynamic shading the ‘prell’ action affords.

Beghin’s other keyboard/music matches are no less pleasing; the sonatas for Marie Esterházy sound especially charming on the delicate, liquidy tones of the square piano, and Haydn’s exploration of the English grand’s declamatory powers is given thrilling voice in the London Sonatas. Beghin thoughtfully repeats two sonatas, allowing us to compare Haydn’s first great sonata, the C minor (Hob XVI:20), on clavichord and fortepiano, and his final masterpiece, the E flat major Sonata (Hob XVI:52), on Viennese fortepiano and English grand. His performances are engaging, albeit imbued with a degree of formality that once or twice risks attenuating a seductive Adagio or reducing Haydn’s humour to an over-deliberate rhetorical gesture.

Quibbles aside, The Virtual Haydn is an impressive achievement, although I’m still not sure how many conventions it challenges. Its claim to innovation rests, as the title implies, on the use of virtual acoustics, which appear to have a far more direct impact on the performer than on the listener. This set first appeared in 2009 on Blu-ray only, and perhaps you need a top-quality surround-sound system to appreciate the sonic differences between the virtual rooms, and to hear how – or if – they matter. On CD I found it almost impossible to tell, yet I never felt this impaired my enjoyment of the music, which Haydn presumably hoped would work in many different spaces. So how do virtual acoustics really benefit the listener? That, for me at least, remains a rhetorical question.

GRAHAM LOCK Read the full review on Agora Classica


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Piano International, 2012 - ©Rhinegold Publishing