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
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
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
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.