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Haydn: Sonatas, Vol. 2 / John O'Conor

Release Date: 11/01/2019
Label: Steinway & Sons Catalog #: 30110
Composer:  Franz Joseph Haydn Performer:  John O'Conor

The celebrated artistry of pianist John O'Conor returns to the Steinway label with the second volume of a continuing series of Sonatas by Haydn. John O'Conor has been gathering wonderful reviews for his masterly playing for over forty years.

Album Credits:

Recorded June 3 & 4, 2019 at Steinway Hall, New York City.
Producer: Jon Feidner
Engineer: Lauren Sclafani
Assistant Engineer: Melody Nieun Hwang
Editing: Kazumi Umeda
Production Assistant: Renée Oakford
Mixing and Mastering: Daniel Shores

Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner
Art Direction: Jackie Fugere
Piano Technician: Lauren Sclafani
Piano: Steinway
Read more Model D #597590 (New York)
Design: Cover to Cover Design, Anilda Carrasquillo
Cover Photograph: Hugh O’Conor


Celebrated for his characterful, refined interpretations of Beethoven, Schubert and – rather notably – John Ireland, Irish pianist John O’Conor has recently ventured into the 52 sonata-strong catalogue of Franz Joseph Haydn. The second in a projected series of such recordings with Steinway & Sons, this most recent release generally features late sonatas, varied in their formal structures yet irresistible in their innovations. O’Conor brings his customary warmth and tasteful approach to these classical essays: quirky, unexpected works at a good distance from the tautly balanced sonatas of Mozart and Schubert.

Haydn’s experiments in the genre offer a wide spectrum of musical personality. They brush boisterously with folk idioms of the 18th century, skewing phrasing and lyrical gesture in a ribald quest of mirth and merriment. Their slightly rough-and-tumble profile is not always captured by O’Conor. He appears to prize refined voicing and sculpted colour over a bit of pianistic fun. (Once in a while however, he does let himself loose amongst this music’s rustic urgings.) Despite the craft and polish, one detects a faint lack of familiarity with these works; figures and flourishes sound half-hearted, almost glossed over.

It is in the slow movements on this record where O’Conor sounds most at home. He brings a sincerity to Haydn’s melodic lines born of an intimate, semplice mode of expression. O’Conor’s ear for colouristic subtlety delivers harmonic poise and vocal nuance, begetting interpretations that would surely have made the old Austrian composer smile.

-- Adam Sherkin, The Whole Note

...Today, Haydn’s piano sonatas require something very different from what Beethoven’s are accorded automatically: respect. That is, in modern times, what they especially need is not to be regarded as unimportant or as throwaways – which is how they tend to be seen when compared with Beethoven’s or, for that matter, Mozart’s (and even Mozart’s do not always get the respect they deserve). A Steinway & Sons release featuring five Haydn sonatas played by John O’Conor is an unalloyed pleasure because it handles these works exactly as they should be handled, treating them as unassuming but not naïve, and showing how they share the poise, balance, delicacy and (frequently) humor that are characteristic of so much of Haydn’s music. The unusual tempo marking of the first movement of the two-movement Piano Sonata No. 54 can almost stand for a foundational approach to Haydn’s sonatas in general: Allegro Innocente. There is a straightforwardness to these sonatas that can make it difficult to remember exactly which pleasure comes from which work (Vivaldi’s concertos have a similar issue); but as O’Conor shows, what matters is the sheer amount of pleasure in all the sonatas, even though they (again like Vivaldi’s concertos) have mostly the same structure. Indeed, aside from the two-movement No. 54, the sonatas O’Conor offers all have a fast-slow-fast arrangement, with all the middle movements marked Adagio. But details matter in Haydn, and it is no accident that the longest single movement in any of these five sonatas is the central one of No. 59, which is the only movement in which the word Adagio comes with a qualifier: e Cantabile. O’Conor is so well attuned to Haydn’s sonata design and structure that he manages to bring out the singing quality of this movement without in any way pushing the music beyond the strict Classical boundaries to which Haydn always adhered. All the performances here are equally impressive. The five sonatas are all in major keys: No. 48 in C, No. 50 in D, No. 54 in G, No. 59 in E-flat, and No. 60 in C. But just as in his major-key symphonies, Haydn expertly dips the music into the minor from time to time, always appropriately and tastefully, hinting at slightly more inward-looking material without ever turning the atmosphere significantly darker. O’Conor’s pianistic delicacy – even on a modern concert grand, which is decidedly not the historically correct instrument for this music – keeps the sonatas in the realm of elegance and, in general, stateliness; but Haydn’s sparkle and occasional puckishness come through as well, just as in his other works, and O’Conor’s skill at eliciting them is just one of this recording’s many pleasures...

The stylish command and intelligent musicality distinguishing John O’Conor’s previous Steinway & Sons Haydn disc extends to this well-engineered follow-up release, even if certain performances succeed more than others. He brings out the D major sonata Allegro’s inherent wit by the subtle variety with which he articulates the ornaments. The slow movement’s Handelian grandeur matches that of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s recording, but with greater animation. O’Conor’s inventive embellishments make up for his slightly sedate Presto finale.

Like Emanuel Ax, O’Conor favors a measured approach to the E-flat sonata’s opening movement, yet he works too hard to differentiate detached and legato notes within phrases, whereas Ax is more flexible and mobile, and far less studied. Conversely, the Menuet finale seems a bit unsettled via O’Conor’s fast tempo, in contrast to Bavouzet’s ideal poise. While the C major XVI:50’s first-movement exposition can’t be faulted for balance and color, O’Conor’s right hand double notes are not quite so supple as those of Richter or Hamelin. But what deliciously pointed and timed scales in the C major XVI:35’s finale! Listeners who feel that Hamelin’s G major sonata Presto finale is too brash and brisk for comfort may prefer the varied inflections and breathing space that O’Conor’s more genial interpretation allows. Excellent sonics.

-- Jed Distler,

From the ethereal and strange impressionism of Debussy to the strict (if always melodically winning) formalism of Haydn; unless you want sonic whiplash, I wouldn’t recommend listening to the previous entry and this one back-to-back. John O’Conor is a champion of Haydn’s piano sonatas, which he believes are underappreciated. He makes a strong argument for them on his second album in the series, playing sonatas 48, 50, 54, 59, and 60 with both fluid grace and emotional insight, bringing out both the structural ingenuity that is always front and center and and the humor that always lurks just below the surface in Haydn’s work. The recorded sound is perfect; intimate but not crowded, rich without being too resonant. Highly recommended to all classical collections.

-- Rick Anderson, CD Hotlist Read less