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
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,
Pogorelich all give delightful
accounts, but none match or outclass
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.
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