SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0162

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MusicWeb International, April 2021


Leon McCawley has recorded the complete piano sonatas of Mozart to considerable critical acclaim. It is good to see him now turning his attention to the piano works of Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Haydn.

The first work on this recording is Haydn’s Sonata in E Minor which was first published in London in 1784. McCawley brings a wonderful feeling of space, an enormous variety of touch and beautifully sculpted phrases to the Presto first movement. His account of the central Adagio is highly cultivated. I particularly admire the handling of Haydn’s extended ornamental lines which are played with finesse and precision. An infectious enthusiasm and an intense musicality flows through the finale which comes across as fresh and invigorating.

The next work on the recording is the Sonata in C Major which is the first of Haydn’s final three piano sonatas. There have been many fine recordings of this work by leading pianists but this must surely rank as up there with the best of them. Haydn’s runs and ornaments in the opening Allegro are crisply and elegantly played. McCawley continually brings out the wit and inventiveness of the music in highly innovative ways. His handling of the tight exchanges towards the end of the development section seem to transform the movement into an exuberant comic drama. The central Andante is graceful and elegant and the music flows in a natural and unaffected way. The finale with its quirky humorous sidesteps is an absolute delight.

Haydn’s Sonata in C Minor is a dramatic and technically demanding work which was first published in 1780. The first movement is marked Moderato and McCawley’s tempo seems spot on to me. The Sturm und Drang elements of the music come to the fore in the elegiac first subject. This is balanced beautifully with the major key section which follows; in McCawley’s hands this has a Mozartean quality. The central Andante has an irresistible lyricism while the technical fireworks of the finale are delivered with virtuoso aplomb.

The penultimate work on the recording is Haydn’s Sonata in E Flat Major which was the composer’s final piano sonata. This monumental work was written in the 1790’s and first published in 1798. The length, harmonic language and broad symphonic development in the work presage the work of Beethoven. McCawley’s account of the first movement has grandeur and whimsy in equal measure. The development section is handled with consummate skill and has a symphonic breadth and sonority. Rich chords open the Adagio second movement and here I love the way McCawley sustains the line. McCawley plays the rapid Presto finale as marked while maintaining clarity and evenness in the passagework.

The programme ends with the F Minor Variations which are the finest set of piano variations to emerge from the second half of the 18th Century. There are many leading pianists who have recorded this great work but once again this is a front-rank performance which compares with the best of them. There are gorgeous changes in tone colour as McCawley’s performance moves from F Minor to F Major. The ornaments, trills and runs are played with finely etched detail and I love the way the music blossoms out and grows organically as the performance progresses.

Overall, this is a superb recording which features first rate Haydn playing. The performances of the C Major Sonata and the F Minor Variations are exceptionally fine and among the best I have heard.
Robert Beattie

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Diapason, July 2017


You will remember a Diapason d’Or in 2006 and the comments of an extremely impressed Alain Lompech reviewing the complete Mozart Sonatas, which McCawley had released on Avie. Yesterday Mozart, today Haydn doesn’t tell us much. On the one hand, in the intervening years the discography of the British pianist has led to Barber, Chopin, Schumann (this latter received an Editor’s Choice from our colleagues at Gramophone). On the other hand, the singing quality which caresses our ear in these four Sonatas and which finds its way into the athletic finale of the No. 62 echoes the Rachmaninov Preludes released last year (also on SOMM).

Haydn begins his Sonata in E minor with two opposing motifs in the first measure; one is staccato and given to the left hand, the other in the right hand is legato. Between these two opposites, what a range in his interpretation and how many layers of gradation! This is true of the whole album. Here and elsewhere one finds the eloquence of a neat punctuation which set it apart, which leaves some air between two notes or two ideas; McCawley ties these together, in a special quality of inflexions which make their point with great intelligibility and sensitivity. He moves towards us like a visitor, a feeling which the sound engineer has interpreted with care.

In a famous article, Alfred Brendel has analysed minutely the mechanism of the humour in the finale of Sonata No. 60. McCawley gives us all this in fine detail, all the light and shade and the rapid runs, with a spirit which is less capricious than that of his colleague’s but no less vibrant. Everywhere else, McCawley’s fluidity, his dynamic range…easily sweeps away our pre-conceived ideas. And his natural phrasing allows him to play, while observing each repeat, the Variations in F minor lasting about fifteen minutes, which become under his hands of a sculptor, a sort of string quartet for the piano.
Gaëtan Naulleau

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The Arts Desk, April 8th 2017

Haydn’s keyboard music needs this sort of persuasive advocacy. Four sonatas and a set of variations is a lot to pack in to a single disc, but the composer’s inability to waffle on is his greatest asset. There’s such elegance and economy at play in this music; every note counts and there’s nowhere to hide. Leon McCawley’s unflappability is winning, the deceptive technical challenges surmounted with no sense of strain. I’m thinking of moments like the rapid semiquavers in the last movement of Sonata No 53, beautifully handled. He relishes the stranger flights of fancy but never spoils the fun by blurting out the punchline. Sonata No 60’s opening bars are bafflingly odd: McCawley has fun emphasising the prosaic bass line but keeps the music moving forward. And listen to the way he phrases the second movement’s aria-like melody, the soft chordal accompaniment barely audible.

Grandest of the four is the late Sonata in Eb. McCawley’s slow movement is matchless, and his dry wit is intoxicating in the quickfire finale. Really, really good, and there’s a pleasing bonus in the form of Haydn’s entertaining Variations in F minor. The soft, deadpan ending is a thing to marvel at. McCawley’s notes are a pleasure to read, and Somm’s warm sound suits this repertoire well.
Graham Rickson

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Birmingham Post, 16th March 2017

Leon McCawley’s disc is especially welcome as a generously timed (79 minutes) and delightfully played one-disc introduction to some of Haydn’s best work. The Sonata No.62, from 1794, takes us into the musical world of late Mozart and early Beethoven with McCawley giving the opening movement a suitably proud and heroic sound. Sonatas No. 33 in C minor and No.53, in E minor, recall Haydn’s early minor-key symphonies with their abrupt mood changes and agitated character, with McCawley’s playing suitably louring when required. The kaleidoscopic Variations in F minor, using both major and minor and ranging widely in mood, is a masterpiece wittily performed by McCawley. A disc to please aficionados and newcomers – entertaining and well-recorded.
Norman Stinchcombe

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Pianist Magazine, February/March 2017

Here is a Haydn CD to cherish. Four of his finest piano sonatas are brought together with the sparkling F minor Variations for nearly 80 minutes of music. Still in the catalogue is Leon McCawley’s benchmark recording on Avie of Mozart sonatas, which outclasses many prestigious names. Not that McCawley is restricted to Viennese classics: his Rachmaninov Preludes (also on Somm) compete with the Russian heavyweights.

Here McCawley relishes the playful and humorous side to Haydn, not least in the finales of the two minor-key sonatas, and teases out harmonic surprises by broadening the slow movements of the C major and the late E flat major sonatas, A magisterial account of the F minor Variations makes a splendid close to this recital. Well-recorded piano sound…
Erica Worth

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BBC Music Magazine, February 2017

Four of Haydn’s best loved and most recorded piano sonatas make up this recital together with his uniquely poignant Variations in F minor. The modern piano…is of crisp and even tone…cleanly recorded in an acoustic neither too resonant nor too dry. Leon McCawley’s approach might also be described as middle-way: not for him the pert ‘period’ mannerisms or the proto-Romantic exaggerations that some other pianists have brought to Haydn: expressive rubato is always contained within a steady rhythm while the sustaining pedal is used only sparingly.

Yet, within a few springy bars of the Scarlatti-like opening of Sonata No. 53, it is evident that he commands dexterity of fingering to rival Marc-André Hamelin (on Hyperion). Not does his precision of touch preclude intensity of feeling, whether in the warmly affectionate unfolding of the ornate Adagio of Sonata No. 60, or the clinching fierceness that he finds in the penultimate section of the bleak C minor finale of Sonata No. 33. And by launching into Haydn’s last and most ambitious Sonata No. 62, at a relatively sweeping pace, he is also strikingly successful in uniting its tricky juxtapositions of grandeur and playfulness. Yet his account of the F minor Variations is the stronger for his refusal to overflow its tragic coda or to milk the pathos of its closing bars. More Haydn from this pianist would be welcome. Performance **** Recording ****
Bayan Northcott

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The Cross-Eyed Pianist, November 14th 2016

Whenever I hear Haydn’s piano music played well, I want to rush to my piano to play it myself. Such was the effect of listening to Leon McCawley‘s new ‘Sonatas and Variations’ disc on the Somm label. Haydn’s piano music is not performed enough, in my humble opinion, so it is a pleasure to have a recording of such quality to enjoy.

A brace each of sonatas in major and minor keys, these works have long been part of McCawley’s concert repertoire, and this shows in his deft and insightful handling of articulation, dynamics and Haydn’s rapid changes of mood. Nothing feels forced nor contrived, and there’s wit and humour aplenty, especially in the C major Sonata (No. 60, Hob. XVI/50) which shows Haydn (and McCawley) thoroughly enjoying his mastery of the instrument and its capabilities. McCawley brings elegance and spaciousness to the slow movements, revealing fine details of inner voices. Haydn’s final piano sonata, No. 62 in E flat Hob. XVI/52, which unlike the last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert was composed some 15 years before Haydn died, rather than at the end of his life, combines grandeur and exuberance in its opening movement, while the slow movement has a stately nobility. The finale is a lively romp, but despite the rapid tempo, there is never any loss of detail or precision.

The F minor Variations are a delight, at once melancholy and wistful in the minor variations, and gracious, playful and warm in the major ones. Interior details are highlighted and a sense of the overall architecture and narrative of the work is clear. And I am pleased to note that McCawley observes all the repeats, which turns this work into something enjoyably substantial. Throughout there is tasteful pedalling and the piano has a lovely clarity, perfect for this music. Recommended.
Frances Wilson