When Tom Beghin, a Flemish pianist, joined the music faculty at McGill University in 2003, he already had plans to record all of Joseph Haydn’s keyboard sonatas. Haydn wrote more than 50 pieces for solo keyboard instruments over nearly 30 years, from 1766 to 1794. “This was to be my ‘masterwork,’ ” Beghin says, “not in a romantic or self-glorifying way, but in the 19th-century sense of being accepted to a guild.”
Beghin’s comment reflects both his intellectual ambition and his self-effacing manner. Which may help explain why it is Haydn’s music that has become the focus of his life, because that’s what Haydn was like. The Austrian composer died 200 years ago this year, so his prolific output has become the focus of new attention. His music’s flawless logic is being appreciated anew. His cool, often witty emotional detachment, which led earlier generations to dismiss him as a cold fish, now seems suited to our own skeptical era.
But no project during this Haydn bicentennial year is as surprising as Beghin’s. He always planned to record Haydn’s works, not on a modern piano, but on new replicas of the original instruments. In the late 1700s, keyboard technology was evolving fast, from harpsichords and clavichords to fortepianos and pianofortes, each coaxing sound from strings in a different way. Beghin approached another new McGill prof, the legendary German record producer and recording engineer Martha de Francisco, to capture the nuances of each instrument in the studio.
It was yet another McGill colleague who brought the wild card. Wieslaw Woszczyk is another recording engineer with a penchant for new technology. He approached Beghin and de Francisco with a challenge: if this was to be Haydn’s music on (something like) Haydn’s instruments, why not record it in the rooms where it was first performed? Woszczyk knew hauling all those keyboards across Central Europe would cost a mint. So he had an audacious Plan B: why not digitally capture the acoustic characteristics of each room—echo, delay, reverberation and so on—and recreate the sounds of all those rooms in a single Montreal studio?
Beghin, a traditionalist who pores over Haydn’s correspondence for clues about his music, was skeptical. “I asked myself, ‘Oh, what’s next, do we need to use candlesticks? Do we have to wear their clothes?’ Which is not so stupid, because it kind of restricts you when you move.”
But Woszczyk and de Francisco are not prone to gimmickry, and Beghin let himself be persuaded. The result is The Virtual Haydn, a recording of the composer’s complete keyboard works, performed by Beghin on seven replica instruments in nine “virtual rooms”—digital equivalents of places like Haydn’s own study in Eisenstadt, the festsaal in Vienna’s Palais Dietrichstein-Lobkowicz and the spiegelsaal in the Esterhazy Palace, where Haydn served as the house composer to nobility.
Woszczyk recorded the characteristics of each room, then channelled that information and Beghin’s own fresh notes through a dome of loudspeakers deployed around the keyboardist. To Beghin it sounded like he was playing in those far-flung rooms. On disc it sounds like he was recorded on an extended and varied tour. (The Virtual Haydn is being released for sale around the world this month and next on Naxos, appropriately in a new format: 14 hours of audio and a full-length video documentary on four Blu-ray discs.) The sound is crisp in small rooms, opulent in grander settings. And because the keyboard technology changes so radically from one set of sonatas to another, we’re reminded that this so-called “classical” period didn’t feel like a genteel twilight period to the people who lived through it. It felt like one long upheaval.
Most important, the technology allows Beghin to show how much care Haydn took to write music for specific settings. Beghin calls him an “orator,” in the sense that a gifted speech maker selects his material and manner to suit each audience. That’s far from the romantic ideal of the protagonist who’s helpless in the grip of his own fevered genius, and for the longest time Haydn’s poise actually played against his reputation.
No fair, says Beghin. “There is no shame in being aware of your technique, being aware of what you do. When I play Haydn, when I listen to Haydn, I never had a sense of incompleteness. He’s a full human being, with a full range of emotions.”