The keyboard sonatas of Franz Joseph Haydn have always posed something of a performance problem. On paper, many of them are thin, even sketchy, and mainstream recitalists generally avoid them, knowing that they as performers would be expected to flesh them out with ornaments and embellishments, a skill in which most are ill trained. Therefore, it was with great curiosity that a standing room only audience packed into the National Humanities Center to hear fortepianist and 2002-2003 NHC fellow Tom Beghin present his take on these seldom heard compositions. Working on a book on Haydn’s keyboard sonatas as rhetoric, Beghin tarted up five authentic – and one doubtful – sonatas with extensive and elaborate embellishments to conform to his theory of Haydn as musical orator.

The concept of music as rhetoric is as old as Plato, if not older. Briefly, it means that music is thought to have the power to control mood, inspire action and move the soul; and it is distinct from the idea of music as mere entertainment. During the 17th and 18th centuries, there were dozens of treatises on musical “affect,” assigning to musical styles, keys and ornamentation direct correspondence with emotional states and semantic concepts. Mozart, for example, regarded the key of g minor as tragic, even though the arrangement of intervals was exactly the same as c minor or e minor. Bach, a consummate rhetorician, set the words of his cantata texts to affectively appropriate music – as distinct from tone painting. The Crucifixus of the B Minor Mass with its jarring cross relations serves as one obvious example. Modern audiences, however, have little idea of the extent and wealth of rhetorical figures used by Baroque and Classical composers, nor of their intrinsic significance for both composers and audiences of the period.

Which brings us to Beghin’s performance. After an introductory sonata, bedecked with all the bells and whistles you can imagine, Beghin explained that the piece was of doubtful authenticity and that the succeeding four works would demonstrate the far more awesome power of Haydn, the musical orator, as opposed to cake decorator. Most importantly, he presented a sharply defined triangle of composer/performer/audience that assigns to the performer far more of a role in interpreting the music than is currently the fashion. Performers were expected to be accomplished improvisers and thereby add something of their own to the music on the printed page. In Haydn’s case – as with other composers of solo keyboard music during this period – Beghin conceives of the composer as the original performer, using the power of improvisation and ornamentation to enhance the meaning and emotive power of the written music. Subsequent performers, principally a composer’s dedicatees, would be expected to recognize and supply similar enhancements to the notated score. While rhetorical in some sense, such piece were originally not intended for public performance, but rather as more private musical “letters.” Once Haydn began publishing his keyboard works, however, the musical scaffolding of printed notes gradually came to be regarded as a definitive text, something the composer had never intended.

The first definitively Haydn sonata on the program, in E major, Hob. XVI:22, was written in 1773 and dedicated to the composer’s employer, the musically talented Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. For Beghin, the dedication is not just a formality, but rather represents a musical oration, meant to please and impress his patron (and perhaps even persuade, as in the “Farewell” Symphony”). Beghin, in effect, assumed Haydn’s role as orator, taking every repeat with elaborate andextensive embellishments. We do not know upon what theoretical or historical basis Beghin chose his ornaments but they were certainly more elaborate than anything we have ever heard before. They included stretched tempi and barlines to include entirely new music interpolated between Haydn’s original notated version. Once fully ornamented, this Sonata resembled the quirky notated style of Haydn’s contemporary, C.P.E. Bach.

Our reaction to this kind of musical oratory was somewhat mixed. First of all, what might be the subject of such a musical oration? Is it to achieve a particular emotional state, a disquisition on the opening theme itself, or is it a semantic message discernible only to cognoscenti of the system?

Secondly, Beghin has a wonderful technique but combined it with some annoying and overused mannerisms. On the one hand, he wed sheer digital dexterity to an excellent sense of the direction and potential for expansion of a simple musical phrase; and it’s a good thing too, since he made up so much new music. On the other hand, he overdid what for lack of a better term, we’ll call “the staccato cadence.” This involved a kind of leaping up from the resolution as if he’d burned his fingers on the keys. And then, there were the silences, what we ended up calling “flamboyant rests.” Pauses are great for letting an orator’s point sink in, but Beghin used the pregnant pause to such an extent and so frequently that the tension was deflated to the commonplace, resulting in a “false labor” and a jerkiness that inhibited the flow of the music.

Following the E major Sonata, Beghin played three two-movement sonatas (Hob XVI: 40, 41and 42) dedicated to Princess Marie Esterházy, the granddaughter-in-law of Nicolaus. These he contrasted with the earlier sonata because they were dedicated to, and meant to be performed by, a woman. Haydn, he explained, gave up the logical periodicity of phrase structure for a more flowing, irregular and emotive asymmetry, more suitable for the female performers, who generally played keyboard works. And indeed, these three sonatas fall outside any regularity we have come to expect with more conventional types of sonata form.

In general, Beghin’s interpretation of these works came off as more musical to our ears, perhaps, one might say, more feminine. Except in the first movement of Sonata No. 40, an eccentric combination of a rondo and variation form that Beghin embellished to near absurdity, his playing was more legato and exploited the “forte” and “piano” aspects of the instrument more fully – although still pretty flashy.

The highlight of the program was the final work, the Andante and Variations in f minor, Hob. XVII: 6, a late “sonata” and one of Haydn’s most frequently played keyboard works. It is a poignant work conveying a feeling of personal grief. Beghin, whose tenure at the NHC is coming to an end, gave it a personal and intimate performance, his les adieux to the Center.

As a whole, such ventures into new – or renewed -ways of performing music are welcome. Everyone left the concert with something substantive to talk about, not just another well crafted performance. And the kind of buzz elicited by Beghin’s Haydn interpretations can only be good for revitalizing classical music. Beghin certainly “spoke” to us and, like a fine orator, made us think about what he “said” even if we didn’t always agree with him. He is planning to record all of the Haydn keyboard sonatas, so we’ll have more to think about.

A postscript: Can you imagine Beethoven’s reaction had anyone messed with his music like that?