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The earliest pieces on this album date from the 1760s. Haydn was in his thirties; his music, often forming three-movement sonatas, was jocular and quirky, sounding more virtuosic than it actually is. Many works played here were headed per Clavicembalo, and it is exciting to hear them on the harpsichord, which was, until much later in his life, Haydn’s own instrument – a large one, with an upper keyboard giving a ‘piano’ against the ‘forte’ of the lower. Pierre Gallon uses this resource with great aplomb, moving agilely between the keyboards to find a seamless continuity.

Gallon is exemplary, too, in developing expression through articulation. Unlike the younger Mozart, Haydn did not at this time seek the control of dynamic through touch, available on the new fortepiano. Dynamic markings in Haydn’s keyboard scores appear only after 1771, and a crescendo only in 1780. They were aimed not at concert performance, but at amateur keyboard players, who, like Haydn, would usually have still owned a harpsichord.

The expressive capacities of instrument and player are stretched to the limit in three slow liederfrom 1781, offering a fascinating insight into just how far the harpsichord can ‘go’. Publishers liked to stress this: Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata was to be headed ‘for pianoforte or harpsichord’, as can be found in publications of Haydn’s own late pieces.

Here is varied music, some unfamiliar, beautifully (and appropriately) played and recorded on a fine German-style harpsichord. Some diehards may still regard this instrument as inexpressive compared with the pianoforte in its numerous guises. This CD might just convert them.

COLIN BOOTH Read the full review on Agora Classica


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