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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Keyboard Sonatas
(1715-1755?): K1 d; K3 a; K8 g; K9 d; K11 c; K24 A; K25 f˜; K27 b; K29 D; K87 b; K96 D; K113 A; K141 d; K146 G; K173 b; K213 d; K214 D; K247 c˜; K259 G; K283 G; K268 A; K380 E; K386 f; K387 f; K404 A; K443 D; K519 f; K520 G; K523 G (in order of Kirkpatrick number, not playlist order)
Mikhail Pletnev (piano)
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, October 1994.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 5181862 [71:81 + 68:45]
Experience Classicsonline


I have written and talked about Mikhail Pletnev’s Scarlatti recordings so much that every renewed attempt feels like self-plagiarism. This is the kind of set that emboldens me to make the most definitive statements without flinching, the kind of performance that makes me sing its praises to anyone who will listen (or pretend to), the kind of recording that can turn me into an evangelist. So lets start with a few of those bold statements:
 
This double CD set is among the five classical recordings that belong in every music-lover’s collection. For classical music fans, no matter what period or style they prefer, this should simply be mandatory.
 
Among solo piano recitals, I have not come across anything as consistently beautiful, appealing, accessible, and delightful except perhaps Alexandre Tharaud’s Concertos italiens Bach disc on HMU 901871. Guesstimating that I have listened to this set 400 times, will probably understate reality. It is as exciting now as it has been the first time I laid ears on it.
 
Actually, let me retract this. When I first listened to this, I did not even know that Scarlatti on the harpsichord was a possibility; I had grown up on the vinyls (Jecklin) of my harpsichordist uncle playing Scarlatti. When I heard the sound of a grand piano emitting from the speakers I was instantly appalled and disappointed. But once a CD is bought, it would be imprudent to just toss it aside. And back when this set came out in 1995, it was still a sizeable investment. So I listened again – and already with less disapproval, though still inner resistance. “It’s not that bad, I remember grudgingly admitting.” The third time I put this on I was sold. This simply was and is irresistible music-making, and no ideological creed is going to be able to resist it. Indeed, if anything can ever convince the ‘purist’ that Scarlatti on the piano is not a sin, it would be this marvel of a disc.
 
In my time as a buyer/seller for a classical department of Tower Records, the first re-issue of this disc came out on Virgin’s super-budget line of two CDs for $11. With a little promotion, it became the department’s best selling CD by factor 4, selling over 600 copies in the two years before Tower’s demise. It has converted neophytes and delighted obsessive collectors (and critics like Jed Distler) in equal measure.
 
Now Mikhail Pletnev is no stranger to controversy and controversial readings, as anyone who has heard his Schumann account on DG, or his recent Beethoven Piano Concerto recordings knows. But he is, at his best, a phenomenal pianist who can transcend through sheer brilliance or joyous musicality all questions of ‘authenticity’ or ‘historical correctness’. It may not always work to the composer’s advantage when Pletnev starts tinkering. Here it does.
 
There must be something about Scarlatti’s “original and happy freaks” (Charles Burney) that make them not only so timeless, but so susceptible to players with exuberant fantasy,  wild ideas, and a comfortably légère idea of the importance of an Urtext. Ivo Pogorelich, equally or more infamous for willful tendencies with the music in front of him, also recorded the Scarlatti sonatas and did so to stunning effect, making that his best - or at least: most un-controversially loved - album.
 
Under Pletnev the sonatas get an eerily modern touch, they become seductive and addictive. Music that sparkles like this is not often found, and once you stop missing the harpsichord in these works, you will find yourself listening to this performance over and over, without getting tired of it. Where Pletnev takes these pieces, they go with him, and happily. Where he prods them, they run, where he caresses them, they purr, where he jolts them, they jump. Scarlatti is terribly alive in these readings.
 
Do not be fooled into thinking that as a Baroque piece, this might make suitable background music for a day in the office. You will not get any work done as you listen with delight. Maria Tipo, Vladimir Horowitz, Christian Zacharias, Konstantin Scherbakov, and Ivo Pogorelich all give delightful accounts, but none match or outclass Pletnev.
 
This particular issue is, by my count, the third guise of these recordings – now part of the “The Gramophone Classical Music Guide/Penguin Guide Recommends …” budget series on Virgin. The look of it is cheaper than its price, with a particularly awfully tawdry design job done on this series. The notes in the fold are minimal. Virgin could not even be bothered to include the quotes through which the series justifies itself. Aesthetically this is somewhere between a wasted opportunity and offensive and it adds no value to the budget Virgin record that is, at the time of writing at least, still available at half the price.
 
In the end the look doesn’t matter. You need to have this CD in your collection one way or the other, as the contents are revelatory.
 
Jens F. Laurson
 


 


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