Domenico Scarlatti, who was, roughly speaking, a contemporary
of Bach and Haendel, was born in Naples, and, around age 35, moved to
Portugal, where he went to teach harpsichord to Princess Maria Barbara.
When she married the future king of Spain in 1729, he went with her
to Spain, where he lived the rest of his life. While he may have written
some of his harpsichord sonatas in Italy, it is likely that most of
them were written in this later part of his life. The son of the famous
composer Alessandro Scarlatti, his church music, written during the
first part of his life, is largely unmemorable. But, something happened
to Domenico when he left his native Italy. Perhaps it was because he
was no longer in the shadow of his father. In any event he went on to
compose one of the greatest monuments of keyboard music in the world.
Scarlatti wrote 555 sonatas for harpsichord, and each
of them stands out as a unique work. The term sonata here has
nothing to do with the later, classical definition of a work with several
movements. Scarlatti's sonatas are brief works, most just a few minutes
long. They are all driven by an intense feeling of rhythm; they are
all based on dance movements, as were most baroque harpsichord pieces.
Scarlatti rarely composed introspective music, slow sonatas that gave
time to think. His leitmotiv was energy, unrestrained verve and liveliness.
Pieter-Jan Belder is a fine young harpsichordist who
became known outside his native Holland because of the excellent recordings
he made in Brilliant Classics’ complete set of Bach’s works in 2000.
His playing covers a wide range of styles; he seems at ease in all types
of music, from the introspective to the lively. This second set of Scarlatti’s
sonatas is the confirmation of what listeners heard in the first set
- that Belder is creating the second great complete recording of these
works, a set of all 555 keyboard sonatas for harpsichord. Only one musician
has done this before: Scott Ross, who recorded the entire set for Erato
shortly before his death.
Belder is a magnificent musician. While his Bach recordings
are excellent, his Scarlatti is magical. In just about every sonata
it sounds as though he has found the key to performing them perfectly.
Listen to some of the faster sonatas, such as K 53 in D major, where
his exuberance takes control of the piece from beginning to end. Or
the brilliant virtuosity of K 56 in C minor, where he brushes aside
the technical difficulties as if they were just exercises. Or listen
to some of the slow, lyrical pieces - of which there are not that many
- such as the long K68 in E flat major, where Belder’s minuet tempo
and subtly graceful ornamentation turn this into a miniature masterpiece.
It should be noted that, in general, Belder’s tempi are a bit slower
than Ross’s, and he turns many of these works into less flamboyant versions
of the music, giving a slightly different impression of Scarlatti.
One plus, on this set, is the presence of several sonatas
for harpsichord, violin and basso continuo (which Ross, in his set,
relegates to the final disc). Belder keeps them in the Kirkpatrick order,
and these five sonatas are a wonderful change and are very attractive.
The second volume in this set shows that the first
was no flash in the pan, and that Belder’s cycle will become recognized
as the equal of Scott Ross’s legendary set, if not surpassing it. On
top of that, at the usual Brilliant Classics budget price, there is
no reason not to snap this set up right away. Kudos to this budget label
for the courage to embark on such a project and for delivering such
an incredibly perfect interpretation of these fine works.