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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonatas for Keyboard
Sonata K.126 in C minor
Sonata K.450 in G minor
Sonata K.108 in G minor
Sonata K.384 in C major
Sonata K.406 in C major
Sonata K.69 in F minor
Sonata K.518 in F major
Sonata K.519 in F minor
Sonata K.434 in F major
Sonata K.278 in D major
Sonata K.402 in E minor
Sonata K.403 in E major
Sonata K.206 in E major
Sonata K.202 in B flat major
Christian Zacharias, Piano
Recorded at Fürstliche Reitbahn, Bad Arolsen, June 2002
MDG GOLD 3401162 [61:51]


Although born and raised in Naples, Domenico Scarlatti reached the apex of his artistry and inventiveness in Spain. It all started with his appointment in the early 1720s as "mestre de capela" to the Portuguese court in Lisbon where he was responsible for the musical education of the ten year old Princess Maria Barbara. The relationship between Scarlatti and the Princess was an exceptional one as she became a fine harpsichordist and even wrote music under Scarlatti’s guidance.

The Princess eventually married the Spanish infante Ferdinad and moved to Spain in 1729, taking Scarlatti with her. Scarlatti remained with Maria Barbara in Spain for the remainder of his life, and his 555 keyboard sonatas were all written for her.

We cannot be sure why Scarlatti would give up a prestigious position in Lisbon for the obscurity of his Spanish post, but compositional freedom likely played a major role. Prior to going to Spain, most of Scarlatti’s compositions were church music where restrictions and conventions limited architectural creativity. In Spain, he was able to concentrate on secular music, which allowed him to compose in an original and unfettered manner.

All of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas are one-movement works covering a wide range of emotional and structural content. However, there are a few prevalent aspects of his keyboard music. Scarlatti loved to surprise his audience with sudden changes in tempo and dynamics; he also favored sharp contours and an incisive rhythmic bounce. Scarlatti also wrote many poignant and slow sonatas where melancholy stands out as the primary emotion.

The debate concerning the use of a modern piano in baroque keyboard works continues to surface, and it certainly has significance for Scarlatti’s music. Given that Scarlatti’s phrasing is so sharp and impetuous, the harpsichord is the perfect instrument to convey these attributes. In comparision, the modern piano tends to round off edges and not supply the requisite tangy rhythmic bounce.

Any pianist attempting to play Scarlatti must make a basic decision whether to try to emulate the harpsichord, play in a pianistic manner, or convey a blend of the two approaches. From my view, a blending is the best regimen to use as the pianist recognizes the resources of the modern piano without neglecting the inherent structure of Scarlatti’s compositions.

Christian Zacharias is no stranger to piano enthusiasts. He has made a host of recordings for EMI Classics and lately has aligned himself with the Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm record company. Zacharias is also no stranger to Scarlatti’s keyboard music as he recorded a disc of Scarlatti’s Sonatas for EMI in 1984 that has been deleted for a few years now.

What approach does Zacharias use in his new Scarlatti disc? Unfortunately, he is completely pianistic and disregards the basic Scarlatti style. He consistently flattens Scarlatti’s rhythmic bounce and rounds off contours. He also drags Scarlatti into the classical and early-romantic eras with smoothed out phrasing and overwrought drama. Further, he is simply too fast in many of the works, often missing opportunities to convey nuance and melancholy.

For comparisions, I used the five volumes that Naxos has released so far in its complete series of Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. In all comparisons, the Naxos pianists provide the blend that I mentioned above with fine rhythmic bounce and sufficient sharpness of contours. They also offer much more melancholy in Scarlatti’s slower works.

Scarlatti reviews usually highlight the specific program and matching of pairs of sonatas. However, there is no point in analyzing these features when the performances are so wayward. Every time I listen to the Zacharias disc, I am reminded of the Irish Composer John Field who was born in 1782. The problem is that Scarlatti never would have composed in Field’s style, and Zacharias does us no favors by trying to match that style.

In conclusion, Zacharias discards the essence of Scarlatti, and the disc is one to avoid. Concerning the recorded sound, Zacharias seems to be playing in an empty warehouse with excessive reverberation and brightness. Add in the MDG premium price tag, and that Naxos series looks mighty appealing. Again, I can only urge readers to pass on the Zacharias; he is light-years removed from Scarlatti and Baroque music.

Instead, pick up Volume 1 of the Naxos series that is played by the Georgian pianist Eteri Andjaparidze. In addition to excellently conveying Scarlatti’s sharp phrasing, she offers us a full meal in those slow sonatas pervaded with melancholy. Specifically, her K.434 and K.402 are stunning interpretations loaded with melancholy and intense subtlety. Zacharias is twice as fast, travelling a superficial route of his own making.

Don Satz

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