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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 7
Sonata in F major, K.483
Sonata in F major, K.542
Sonata in B flat major, K.360
Sonata in C minor, K.40
Sonata in C major, K.422
Sonata in F minor, K.238
Sonata in F major, K.17
Sonata in A major, K.500
Sonata in A major, K.114
Sonata in E minor, K.291
Sonata in G major, K.328
Sonata in A major, K.320
Sonata in G major, K.283
Sonata in C major, K.464
Sonata in D major, K.313
Sonata in D major, K.479
Konstantin Scherbakov, piano
Recorded Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, January 2000
NAXOS 8.554842 [64:03]

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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 pianist.

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.

Don Satz

see also Review by Terry Barfoot



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