The best-selling record label in the world has now reached
Volume 7 of its project to record all the keyboard sonatas of
Domenico Scarlatti. When the series is complete, Naxos will
have about 35 volumes to its credit. Unfortunately, it could
well be the year 2030 before the cycle is finished. I always
applaud patience, but this long wait will surely test mine.
The importance of the Naxos/Scarlatti project cannot
be denied. To the best of my knowledge, there has been only
one complete set of Scarlatti's sonatas; it was recorded by
Scott Ross on harpsichord for the Erato label. To have an alternative
set presented on the piano will be quite an accomplishment for
Naxos and further solidify its reputation as the leading classical
label in the world.
This brings up the issue of harpsichord-vs-piano. I love
both instruments and believe that the value of a Scarlatti recording
rests on the artistry of the performer and his/her ability to
enter the composer's sound-world, not the type of keyboard used.
However, there are those who are convinced that Scarlatti's
music sounds best on the intended instrument (harpsichord),
particularly given the impetuous nature and sharply-etched contours
of his keyboard music. At the other end are the piano advocates
who point to the piano as having the greater capacity to convey
the breadth of styles and phrasing in Scarlatti's music. Suffice
to say that these differences of opinion will be with us indefinitely.
Using a different pianist for each volume, this newest
Naxos release features the formidable skills of Konstantin Scherbakov
whose recordings of the piano music of Russian composers have
rightly earned high praise. In terms of pianism and technical
command, Scherbakov's performances easily surpass those of the
earlier volumes. His phrasing, sonorities and trills are superbly
executed. Further, I have never heard in this music such a wide
range of dynamics and articulations. Additional features such
as the realization of Scarlatti's impetuosity and sharply-etched
contours are also brilliantly represented by this splendid Siberian-born
Having said the above, I have not greatly enjoyed Scherbakov's
way with Scarlatti and actually prefer each of the earlier volumes
in the series. There are two reasons for my skepticism. One
is that he often underplays the lower voices and other secondary
musical lines, giving the music a precious quality that tends
to damage the forward thrust of the music. This tendency manifests
itself immediately in the Sonata in F major, K.483. Scherbakov
unfortunately uses the approach in most of the ensuing major
key sonatas. I must admit that the pianist also gives us an
abundance of boldly projected phrasing, and many listeners will
find the contrasts quite compelling.
The second and more pervasive reason for my lack of enthusiasm
concerns the simple matter of the unbridled and carefree joy/exuberance
of Scarlatti's sonatas in major keys. This joy of music-making
stands out in the first six Naxos volumes but is missing in
Scherbakov's interpretations. He takes the music too seriously,
and this reviewer's listening enjoyment is severely dampened.
Another negative consideration is that Scherbakov does not fully
convey the intense sadness of the three programmed minor key
sonatas. In effect, Scherbakov is serious in all the wrong places.
Given the pianist's exceptional pianism and virtuosity
along with a clear soundstage having superb resonance, this
new release is particularly disappointing. I do need to report
that all other comments I have heard about the recording have
been highly favorable, leading me to conclude that my views
are in the minority. If 'Serious Scarlatti' is what you are
looking for, Scherbakov should be the perfect guide. Otherwise,
I recommend investigation of the previous volumes in the series
as well as the splendid 2-cd set on Virgin Classics performed
by Mikhail Pletnev.
see also Review
by Terry Barfoot