Project Description

Somm Recordings SOMMCD 0602

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BBC Music Magazine, December 2019

‘More Haydn from this pianist would be welcome’, concluded the review in these pages of Leon McCawley’s first Haydn collection in February 2017. And here have it: a well-balanced selection of six sonatas ranging from the early No. 19 in E minor, with its already intensely charged Siciliano, by way of the stark No. 47 in B minor, redolent of Haydn’s ‘storm and stress’ middle period, to the comprehensive maturity of his great late No. 59 in E flat major, with its ornately expressive central Adagio. All this recorded with appropriate crispness and cantabile in Turner Sims hall.

The sparkle of McCawley’s touch is instantly apparent in the frolicsome Allegro of Sonata No. 50 in D major which opens the disc, as is his evenness of fingering in the passagework of its Presto finale, while the darkly baroque Largo Haydn unexpectedly places between them exemplifies this pianist’s ability to sustain a slow tempo without undue resort to pedal. Most impressive throughout the disc is McCawley’s command of subtle nuance and rubato without ever sounding self-conscious or mannered. The impression, so artfully mediated, is that the music is being allowed to speak for its self. We are beginning to be spoiled for choice amidst the plethora of recent Haydn Sonata recordings, but this collection should stand high on any list.
Bayan Northcott

Performance ****
Sound ****

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Gramophone, November 2019

Light of touch, stylistically assured and brimful of intelligence and wit, Leon McCawley’s second instalment of Haydn sonatas for Somm fairly sparkles with delight. This follows his 2016 recording of four sonatas plus the F minor Variations (2/17) and, while no mention is made of a ‘complete’ Haydn sonata set, one hopes that the series will continue, whatever its purview.

Haydn’s multifarious moods are captured with the ease of a master portraitist, working with the utmost economy of means. In these five very different sonatas, one never feels that the musical discourse veers toward overstatement: eloquence is achieved with simplicity, allowing the richness of Haydn’s imagination to shine brightly throughout.

Though seldom identified with opera today, Haydn wrote some two dozen of them. The Sonata in E minor (HobXVI:47) opens with an Adagio that could easily double for a fully developed scena in one of the Eszterháza operas, with the heroine sharing her melancholy indecision, only to hit upon her dilemma’s solution in the ensuing Allegro.

Haydn of the Sturm und Drang symphonies seems to step forward in the B minor Sonata (No 32). McCawley vividly evokes the seriousness of the powerful Allegro, before transitioning seamlessly into a Minuet in B major, with a minor-key Trio suggesting that relief will be short-lived. In the Presto finale, intrigue returns with polyphonic passagework and insistent rhythms that bring the symphonic drama to a tragic conclusion.

Among these five sonatas are three minuets, each as varied in character as their expressive purpose within the context of their respective sonatas, yet always true to the essential poise of 18th-century dance. And this may be the key to McCawley’s success as a Haydn interpreter. Reliant on touch and articulation within a relatively restrained dynamic compass, he vividly recreates the breadth and depth of Haydn’s musical imagination on the modern Steinway in a way that never seems overblown, but always proportionate.

McCawley has a great deal to say in this music, and does so with eloquence and grace. I look forward to hearing a lot more.
Patrick Rucker

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International Piano, November 2019

Following his fabulous set of Mozart sonatas on Avie, Leon McCawley has embarked on a cycle of Haydn sonatas on SOMM. There is an abundance of joy in McCawley’s sparkling acciaccaturas of the D major sonata (No 59), maximally contrasted with the central Largo e sostenuto, a dignified post-Baroque sarabande. He is expert at finding underlying depth in apparent naiveté, such as in the G major (No 54), where Haydn’s extended explorations emerge naturally, the finale an explosion of energy, stunningly articulated. Perhaps McCawley is at his finest in the enigmatic E minor (No 19), revealing an absolute jewel. The B minor (No 47) is a profound utterance; the great E-flat (No 59) is grand and impressive. SOMM’s recording captures every nuance. McCawley easily holds his own among the likes of Bavouzet, Brendel and Hamelin. Great joy awaits within.
Colin Clarke

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MusicWeb International, October 31st 2019

Haydn’s sheer delight in the piano always seems to infect any pianist who puts his hand to the sonatas, and Leon McCawley is no exception.

There are many ways to approach these works, and Mr. McCawley has chosen the attractive path of elegance and wit. His buoyant renditions are a stark contrast to what for many is the reference recording for the sonatas, the complete set made by the late John McCabe for London records in the 1970s. To make a clear comparison between the two pianists: McCawley is a sleek racehorse, light of foot and ready to run, while McCabe is a Clydesdale, heavier and down-to-earth. The latter pianist digs in, emphasizing the drama in these works, savoring the slow movements and underlining the imaginative compositional textures utilized by Haydn. McCabe’s set is notable for its emotional depth and comprehension of the mechanics of Haydn’s compositional techniques. McCawley’s nimbler take is no less legitimate, and is probably more immediately ingratiating to those unfamiliar with the works.

In his hands, the sonatas bubble and sparkle, and Haydn’s wonderful sense of humor is thrust to the fore. Take the last movement Presto of the G Major Sonata (no. 54). His tempo flies along at an impressive clip, every note securely in place. He makes it sound effortless, but I can assure you, it is not an easy thing to play so quickly with such even articulation, each note set apart with clarity. The quirky off-beat interjections chirp like a cartoon cuckoo with exactly the right sense of irreverence, while the unexpected silences are gauged with precision. Best of all, McCawley doesn’t “do” anything to the music. There are no gimmicks, no uncalled-for dynamic shifts or outsized rubato to wink at or nudge the listener. He’s playing the notes on the page with sensitivity and imagination, but allowing Haydn to speak directly to his audience.

To be clear, my characterization of McCawley as a racehorse is not at all meant to suggest that he lacks profundity in the slow movements. The Adagio e cantabile of the E-flat Major Sonata (no. 59) sings out with a great deal of subtle shading. The ornamentation is presented as an integral part of a vocally-oriented melodic line, rather than merely an annoying feature of the classical style. This is not always the case; many pianists play these sorts of ornaments impatiently, twiddling through the turns quickly to get to the “important” notes. The first movement Adagio of the E Minor Sonata (no. 19) is a similar display of understanding on the part of the pianist, whose operatic shaping of the melody brings to mind the slow movements of Haydn’s younger colleague Muzio Clementi, a parallel I had not previously heard.

This is a wonderful addition to McCawley’s projected traversal of the complete sonatas. If listeners are searching for a modern recording to put alongside the McCabe set, McCawley’s Haydn would make an excellent foil.
Richard Masters

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BBC Radio 3 Record Review, 14th September 2019

First some sparkling Haydn from Leon McCawley…this makes for an excellent opening. McCawley is a persuasive advocate for, as the booklet notes say, Haydn’s ‘airy charm’, observing the wit without undermining the serious intent. A nicely focussed recording.
Andrew McGregor

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