Complete Keyboard Sonatas - Volume 1
Essercizi per gravicembalo - 30 sonatas (1738-39)
Parma Book 1 - 30 sonatas (1751-52)
Parma Book 2 - 30 sonatas (1752)
Carlo Grante (Bösendorfer Imperial piano)
rec. Studio Glanzing, Vienna, 2009
MUSIC & ARTS CD 1236 [6 CDs: 50:57 + 64:14 + 61:31 + 73:51 + 67:46 + 73:56]
Carlo Grante’s undertaking in recording the complete Scarlatti keyboards is both extensive and laudable. He plays a piano, a vast Bösendorfer Imperial, so can immediately be distinguished from the legion of harpsichordists that has colonised this music of late. There is still a valued place for a pianist of insight to tackle this repertoire and I, for one, find the prescriptive nature of so much critical writing on this subject tiring. Why shouldn’t a pianist play Scarlatti?
Grante is perhaps best known for tackling powerhouse late nineteenth and twentieth century repertoire, so here one may need to adjust one’s perspective, or one’s expectations. In fact he scales down his playing, despite the vast beast under his control, with admirable sensitivity and a fine ear for colour and dynamics. He is also attentive to ornaments, plays trills and repeated figures with clarity, evenness and poise, and moreover sounds stylistically apt throughout the course of the whole of this first set of six CDs. In many ways his playing is a primer of how a contemporary pianist playing a nineteenth century instrument can convey this music through subtlety and nuance.
Throughout this undertaking one notices just how plausible are Grante’s solutions to any musical problems, and how nicely he characterises the sonatas without recourse to exaggeration either of tempo or dynamics. He catches the roguish quality of E3 (K3) for instance, with perfect poise, as he does the vein of melancholy that runs throughout E8 (K8). In even so famous a work as the D minor E9 (K9) he still brings a sense of ‘face’ or occasion as though he’s seldom encountered it before. Nothing is stale in his hands. Nor do the opportunities to exaggerate the left hand tempt him. The bass is not overstressed, but it does function as a galvanizing agent - as in E12.
He is astute when dealing with Scarlattian fanfare figures, nicely texturing E17 for example. His unhurried tempo for E22 (K22) is delightful and the performance is full of nuance, with subtlety in caesurae, and splendidly balanced chording. He is partial to those moments where Scarlatti requires of the performer a profound simplicity, such as one finds in the case of one of the first books in the Parma series - the rapt sonata in D major P1:17 (K164). But Grante is alert to those moments too where Scarlatti’s sense of bustle can lead almost to bibulous loss of control. The A minor in the first Parma book - P1:28 (K175) features just such episodes where the music almost runs out of control - but Grante and Scarlatti corral it in the end.
The obsessive restatement of material in which Scarlatti sometimes engages is best exemplified in the second Parma book, in the G major allegro sonata P2:3 (K24) though the succeeding sonata displays another quality, too, in the floridity of the decorative runs. Grante’s graceful phrasing is notable in the eighth of the second book (K135), so too the pealing assurance in the ninth. The first fifteen sonatas in Parma Book 2 are amongst the most genuinely appealing of all these many works, and a good place with which to begin your own Grante-Scarlatti pilgrimage. But don’t neglect the folkloric P2:16 (K120) with its hunting motifs or the stately P2:21 (K127). Excellent though the earlier sonatas are, these 30 Essercizi (or ‘Exercises’), published between 1738 and ’39, are less compelling than the sixty Parma sonatas.
There is considerable doubt over the dating of these works, and indeed over the viability of these ‘books’ of sonatas, but the ordering here is both useful and indeed makes strong musicological sense. The extensive notes consider these and other questions in some considerable depth.
Naxos is in the process of recording the complete Scarlatti sonatas on the piano but they have been parcelled out to a number of pianists. For a single overview, beautifully played, and recorded, the first box in Music & Arts’ series is profoundly impressive. 

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Byzantion
Profoundly impressive.