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Early Music

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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Andreas Staier Edition: Sonata in D minor Kk141 [3:36]; Sonata in D Kk118 [4:34]; Sonata in D Kk119 [5:20]; Sonata in G Kk454 [4:08]; Sonata in G Kk455 [2:40]; Sonata in E minor Kk198 [3:29]; Sonata in E minor Kk203 [4:27]; Sonata in C Kk501 [5:11]; Sonata in C Kk502 [3:56]; Sonata in F Kk518 [3:28]; Sonata in F minor Kk519 [2:52]; Sonata in D minor Kk516 [4:45]; Sonata in D minor Kk517 [2:31]; Sonata in G minor Kk108 [3:30]; Sonata in D Kk490 [6:26]; Sonata in D Kk491 [4:53]; Sonata in D Kk492 [3:36]; Sonata in C Kk420 [4:04]; Sonata in C Kk421 [3:26]; Sonata in E minor Kk263 [4:25]; Sonata in E Kk264 [5:11]; Sonata in C Kk132 [6:35]; Sonata in C Kk133 [3:38]; Sonata in A minor Kk175 [3:23]; Sonata in D Kk277 [1:46]; Sonata in D Kk278 [2:11]; Sonata in D minor Kk213 [7:49]; Sonata in D Kk214 [3:27]; Sonata in B flat Kk202 [3:31]; Sonata in D minor Kk64 [1:38]; Sonata in D Kk96 [4:41]; Sonata in B minor Kk87 [6:05]; Sonata in C Kk460 [6:10]; Sonata in C Kk461 [2:20]
Andreas Staier (harpsichord)
Rec. Lindlar, Germany in December 1990 and February 1992. DDD
DEUTSCHE HARMONIA MUNDI 82876 67375 2 [69:40 + 71:00]

 

Domenico Scarlatti wrote about 550 keyboard sonatas in total. They are relatively short, generally have a similar binary structure and yet contain an almost infinite variety of ideas. It would take most people a lifetime to get to know all these works (I have just realized that, at the current rate of progress, I will need to survive until a letter arrives from King William V - UK citizens receive a letter from the reigning monarch if they reach 100; I am making a few assumptions here!) and it might be a problem knowing where to start. Problem solved; here would do just fine.

This set is one of several reasonably priced boxes that Deutsche Harmonia Mundi have issued in recognition of the fiftieth birthday of the harpsichordist and fortepiano player Andreas Staier. On two well-filled discs he plays a good selection of 34 sonatas including relatively well known one such as Kk Nos 96, 141 and 455. Also on the menu are quite a few that are likely to be new to all but the most dedicated Scarlatti sonata collectors, for example, the first four on the second disc Kk Nos 420-1 and 263-4 Ė these are in no way inferior to their more famous siblings. An important plus is that, where two sonatas were intended to be paired together, Staier gives us both, consecutively and in the order intended (many recorded programmes seem to be quite random).

The instrument is a 1982 copy of a German harpsichord from around 1740 which was made by Keith Hill from Michigan. It is quite bright-toned but has been effectively captured in realistic early 1990s recorded sound. The discs are well-presented in a slim-line cardboard box and slipcases; unusual in my experience for a two disc set. The booklet has good notes on the composer and artist plus a short essay on the anatomy of a Scarlatti sonata by the great guru Ralph Kirkpatrick.

Staierís technique is prodigious. These are generally fast, highly rhythmic performances in which he exhibits wonderful articulation. Despite relatively little overt interpretation (which these wonderful works generally donít need), the playing on these discs grabs oneís attention and never lets go.

The potential for comparisons in Scarlatti is almost endless and yet there is nothing really directly comparable with this set. Indeed every recording artist who has tackled Scarlatti has probably put together a unique programme. The nearest I have to hand is a three-disc anthology from Scott Rossís complete Erato set on the harpsichord, which overlaps quite a bit and is also excellent. In Kk141, and indeed generally, Ross is rather more sedate and cultured. I marginally prefer his instrument (a better bass register) but Staierís "hell-for-leather" approach won me over in this sonata. He is not the fastest on disc, Mikhail Pletnev - on the piano, of course - just pips him in his fascinating set of recordings for Virgin. But he also provides a layer of Pletnev to which one may or may not warm; I mostly do. Also on the piano, Joanna MacGregor, originally for Collins Classics, now on Sound Circus is more "Ross-like" in approach. Similar trends emerge from comparison of Staier and Ross in Kk 455 but here my piano version is played by Vladimir Horowitz, whose interpretive approach is rather similar to Pletnevís. Back on the harpsichord, Ralph Kirkpatrick also recorded this sonata in 1970 and his version withstands comparison with any.

In Kk 96, marked Allegrissimo and one of the best known of all, Staier is relatively fleet and completely convincing but Scott Ross is equally fine here. On the piano, Horowitz is the speediest by some margin but he misses the grandeur. Peter Katin on Claudio is magisterial at a slowish tempo and with tasteful pedalling. To my ears Pletnev overdoes things in this sonata and his tempo changes sound contrived. At this point I gave up making comparisons, mindful of the need to finish the review before Christmas. All the artists mentioned above have made recommendable Scarlatti discs. I would not want to be without any of them but I am sure I will return to Staierís collection frequently.

Some listeners may have a strong allegiance to Scarlatti being played only on the harpsichord or piano but I would argue that this composerís music works well on either instrument. Unless you are wedded to the piano, Staierís offerings seem to be essential. If you are so wedded, may I suggest a divorce or at least a trial separation in the form of an audition of this wonderful set?

Patrick C Waller



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