Haydn – Piano Concerto No. 11

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Painting by Alex Katsenelson

I was ten years old; my oldest brother, Leo, was 20. He entertained girls at our house, and they listened to Joseph Haydn (Austrian composer, 1732-1809) and looked through books with paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (16th-century Dutch painter). I never understood my brother’s choice of art or music. My father, a mostly self-taught painter, had dozens of books with pictures by treasured Russian painters like Isaac Levitan (paintings here) and Dutch masters like Rembrandt (paintings here). But my brother’s weapon of seduction was Bosch. I’ll let you be the judge: Here are paintings by Bosch.  But Leo must have cracked the formula to young ladies’ hearts, as he was very popular with them.

I still remember how I listened about ten times to the Haydn record that Leo played to the ladies, trying to understand what he liked about that music. Haydn was one of the most prolific composers of classical era –he wrote 108 symphonies. But Haydn’s music always felt watered down to me; I thought it lacked emotion and substance. That may sound harsh, but this is how it felt to me.

I did not understand Haydn then, and to be honest I couldn’t relate to his music until just a few months ago, when I stumbled on his Piano Concerto 11. This concerto instantly clicked with me; it felt very Mozartian: The music is light and gentle; it feels elevated in midair. There are about 30 seconds in the third movement that I have not listened to several hundred times, performed by dozen different pianists – it instantly became my favorite 30 seconds of music for 2018.

I set the following performances to start on this 30-second segment – you can rewind if you decide to listen to the full concerto. Along with the astonishing beauty of this little fragment, I think you’ll appreciate the very different interpretations of this piece by various artists.

Thirty-plus years later, I think the lesson here is that if you listen to a composer and feel you don’t like him, don’t cross him off your list; come back to him later. Though he might have been dead for 200 years, he could still surprise you.

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