Piano Sonata No. 50 in C Hob. XVI: 50

October 17, 2021: Roman Rabinovich, piano

While he was in London in 1794 Haydn composed his last three piano sonatas—in C major, D major, and E-flat major—for professional pianist and teacher Therese Jansen; his final works for piano trio were also written for her. The firm friendship he formed with both Therese and her fiancé Gaetano Bartolozzi is affirmed by his standing as a witness to their marriage in 1795. Her pianistic abilities are reflected in all the works he wrote for her; this C major Sonata in particular required the manual dexterity for combinations of parallel thirds and broken octaves as well as a wide range of color and nuance.

Laid out on a grand scale, the first movement of the late C major Sonata nevertheless begins in single triadic notes that then open out into two voices, then three, and culminate in full rolled chords. The second theme, as so often with Haydn, is closely related to the first. But perhaps the most striking features of the movement are Haydn’s performance directions. The most notable of these is the marking (possibly not in his hand) for “open pedal” in the development section, where he modulates to A-flat major, and again in the recapitulation. This direction has been variously interpreted to mean: 1) raise the dampers, which creates a blurring effect, 2) employ the una corda pedal, which softens the tone, or 3) use the two pedals jointly! Other notable directions occur with the aforementioned interplay of thirds and octaves, which require very detailed crescendos and diminuendos.

The Adagio sounds improvisatory but actually unfolds in sonata form. Typical of this type of slow movement, the development section is short, consisting only of ten measures. The recapitulation is nicely elaborated, perhaps in admiration of the slow movement of Mozart’s B-flat major Sonata, K. 315c (K. 333) composed ten years earlier.
Haydn’s finale suggests a scherzo with its triple meter and joking manner. Outrageously short in proportion to the first movement, the movement stresses the deliberately grotesque cadence in the tenth bar, fashioned out of the motive that first appeared in the third bar. The “contrasting” section that alternates two times with the main theme is so closely related to it that Haydn’s monothematic tendencies are again recalled. After each “contrasting” section the opening material returns in a varied version that contains the added curiosity of the note A in the register three octaves above middle C. This note was available on certain English pianos but not those on the Continent. The movement closes before Haydn’s witticisms can wear out their welcome.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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