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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonatas: K197; K203; K215; K216; K208; K209; K213; K548; K158; K159; K248; K249; K490; K491; K492.
Linda Nicholson (fortepiano)
rec. Köln, Funkhaus de WDR Klaus-von-Bismark, October 2003. DDD
CAPRICCIO 67112 [72.46]

I was trying to think why I had enjoyed this CD of Scarlatti sonatas more than so many others recently. It is not that the others were bad or dull; itís just that this recording kept me interested throughout and I found that I fell in love with this music afresh.

I have recently heard or reviewed some of Naxosís ongoing series with young pianists like Michael Lewin or Benjamin Frith. Then thereís been the brilliant Pierre Hantaï using an Italian harpsichord (Auvidis Astrée). Thereís also the mega-ongoing complete Scarlatti on Brilliant Classics played by Pieter-Jan Belder also on the harpsichord.

It might be helpful if I list for you the essentially attractive characteristics of this new release:-

(1) The sheer musicality of Linda Nicholson, extracting from the music every ounce of its worth and more. And with such elegant phrasing.

(2) The beautiful fortepiano used. Frankly, I have on occasions, been irritated by the standard of fortepianos recorded by quite reputable companies. However this reproduction of a 1730 Christofori - the greatest of all makers and often the most underrated - by Denzel Wright based on one made for Scarlattiís patron Queen Maria Barbara of Spain makes a gorgeous sound. Yes it can be metallic and subdued in climaxes but it has a marvellous delicacy and, especially in the expressive sonatas, a profoundly beautiful sound.

(3) The sonatas chosen are all outstanding works. Not a single naff example in sight. Of course this is easy to achieve when, unlike Pieter-Jan Belder, you are not trying to get through them all. There are some collections when either a weak piece or a weak performance spoils an otherwise worthy project. Not so here.

(4) Excellent booklet notes by Jane Clark, who goes through each sonata discussing its history and especially emphasizing the Spanish influence. Over the years, I have been increasingly reminded that Scarlatti can in many ways be thought of as a Spanish composer with an Italian background. Here this is brought over very clearly.

(5) A recording which is probably the best of its kind in its natural and charming reproduction of the instrument.

As is reasonably well known, some sonatas are probably meant to be paired and Ralph Kirkpatrick attempts to reflect this in his numbering system. The two B flat sonatas K248 and K249 do not convince me as pairs but the E major ones K215 and K216 are just right. By that I mean that they are sufficiently contrasted and yet sufficiently different to make an ideal pairing.

One thing which does puzzle me however is Nicholsonís inconsistency as far as repeats are concerned. These sonatas are all binary structures, AB, and each is marked in any edition that I have seen, as being repeated. Sadly although she always repeats the A section only sometimes does she repeat the B. I find this especially disappointing in the large-scale D minor sonata K213 where, as is often the case, the B section is even more imaginative and exciting than the A. We need another chance to appreciate its colours. Consequently therefore the balance of the work seems uneven. On the positive side it has meant that she has fitted fifteen sonatas onto this generously filled disc. I for one am especially glad of that.

The disc captivated me from the start. It opens with the delicate and melancholic B minor sonata K192. Another highlight was the really fleet performance of the famous C major sonata K159 in which one was reminded by Linda Nicholson as to how the fortepiano (especially this one) can offer such delightful contrasts of dynamic. Could this be the sound that Queen Maria Barbara enjoyed, heard and attempted herself? If she did then she must have been a fine player. Spanish, or more especially Andalusian, influences, flamenco guitars, castanets, wailing Moorish-inflected melodies are found throughout. Just listen to K203 in E minor, based on Spanish dance rhythms with discordant sfz attacks on off-beat chords. The full range of the keyboard is used and the requisite virtuosity is easily negotiated by Nicholson.

All in all this is an incredibly rewarding release. Definitely worth searching out.

Gary Higginson

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