It has been nearly twelve years since Naxos
began its ambitious Scarlatti series, recording the complete keyboard
sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, who composed some 555 of them.
Given that only sixteen of the sonatas appear on this disc, this
is a project that may occupy the Naxos group for some time to
come. According to their online listings, Disc No. 1, featuring
pianist Eteri Andjaparidze, appeared in January 1999; this thirteenth
disc, with the Chinese pianist Chu-Fang Huang, was released in
Naxos has chosen to present these sonatas with a series of pianists, rather than harpsichordists, and fans of the latter period approach are invited to hear how convincing Scarlatti sounds in the hands of several (mostly) up-and-coming pianists. On this recording, Chu-Fang Huang – a graduate of both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School – persuasively demonstrates why these baroque sonatas can work so well on the modern piano, even when the listener’s ingrained preference might be for instruments of Scarlatti’s time. Winner of first prize in the Cleveland International Piano Competition and Van Cliburn International Competition finalist, Huang is a stylish and compelling player who also knows the virtues of restraint and taste.
She has a clear affinity for these wonderfully quirky sonatas. Her crisp articulations give each note a subtle separate presence, without ever sounding choppy or percussive. The swiftly flowing melodic lines are never over-pedalled; indeed, the pedal is used sparingly and unobtrusively throughout. The specially Spanish character of the sonatas is deftly underlined in a few instances where they sound almost as if they had been written for Spanish guitar - notably portions of the Sonata K.125 in G Major.
Equally effective is the wistful, gently wandering opening of the biggest and perhaps most unusual sonatas of this set, the K.232 in E Minor. This performance sounds almost improvised, with the plangent harmonies of a repeated rising passage in sixths sounding strangely modern.
At the same time, however, Huang never distorts the music with anachronisms, romantic embellishments, or the over-emoting style with which contemporary pianists sometimes try to make a mark on these 18th
-century pieces. The playing sounds honest and authentic, and the technique – never an easy “given” in these often-speedy pieces with huge intervallic leaps – is so fluid that everything sounds deceptively easy. Some of the tempi are breathtakingly fast.
The excellent two-page liner notes, which give the K (Kirkpatrick) numbers of each sonata as well as the numbers from the Longo (L) and Pestelli (P) catalogues, are by Keith Anderson, and his introduction to the sonatas includes such entertaining anecdotes as an account of the Scarlatti vs. Handel contest in Rome - in which the former was judged the better harpsichordist, while the latter was declared the superior organist.
Clearly, there are many choices for Scarlatti fans, whether they prefer to hear this music on the harpsichord or the piano. And these much-recorded sonatas have attracted the attention of pianists from Horowitz to Alexis Weissenberg, an often-overlooked stylist who produces pulse-pounding Scarlatti. But this Naxos series of fresh discoveries is enough to tempt the palate of the most jaded collector, proving again that the element of pleasant surprise is still alive and well in the recording studio.