Domenico Scarlatti, who was roughly 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, Scarlatti 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, but 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, and Scarlatti
rarely composed introspective music, slow sonatas that gave time to
think. His leitmotif was energy, unrestrained verve and liveliness.
Now, I really wanted to like this disc; after all,
everybody else does - from the classical press in France, where this
disc was published, to listeners around the world. But I just canít.
While I appreciate Pierre Hantaïís playing in other works - especially
his Bach - I just cannot find much to like in his Scarlatti. First,
he seems to be playing more to show off than to truly play the music.
He begins with a wild, rapid sonata, which immediately gives a bad impression
of his harpsichord - there is way too much reverb, and the sound is
very unbalanced, with the treble being too sharp, and the bass offering
little depth. This is intensified in the third work on the disc, K 175,
with some very powerful chords that almost hurt the ears. This is more
like listening to a performance artist than a harpsichordist.
Some of the sonatas, especially the slower ones, benefit
from Hantaïís strong legato. K 208 is one of these; Hantaïís
phrasing is delightful, but it sounds too much like Bach (specifically
the 25th variation of the Goldberg Variations). K 310 is another sonata
that is slow in tempo and liquid in melody. This works well, but the
harpsichordís sound and reverb are just too annoying.
This disc is a disappointment - to me, not to the majority
of critics. The poor balance and sound of the instrument and Hantaïís
desire to show off more than play in the faster works are all negatives
for me. His fluid way of playing the slower sonatas is delightful, however.
Hantaï has been widely praised for this recording, but it just
goes to show that there is no accounting for taste. Of course, one could
easily skip some of the more frantic pieces when listening to this disc