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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata K141 in D minor [3:48]
Sonata K32 in D minor [2:19]
Sonata K115 in C minor [6:01]
Sonata K18 in D minor [3:52]
Sonata K208 in A major [4:54]
Sonata K175 in A minor [3:40]
Sonata K492 in D major [3:46]
Sonata K27 in B minor [3:24]
Sonata K213 in D minor [9:14]
Sonata K239 in F minor [3:10]
Sonata K519 in F minor [2:54]
Sonata K481 in F minor [8:00]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Passacaglia ungherese [4:37]
Hungarian Rock (Chaconne) [5:07]
Continuum [4:26]
Justin Taylor (harpsichord)
rec 2017, Le Théâtre des Quatre Saisons, Gradignan, France
ALPHA 399 [69:20]

In his illuminating introduction to this fascinating issue, the impossibly youthful looking French-American harpsichordist Justin Taylor describes his new disc as an “…impromptu dialogue between these two unclassifiable musical personalities.” There can be little argument that despite being separated in time by two and a half centuries, both Domenico Scarlatti and György Ligeti were, in their own ways, musical mavericks. Yet Taylor seeks deeper connections between them, in terms of their geographical displacement (from Hungary to Romania and thence to Austria in the case of Ligeti, while Scarlatti famously ended up at the Spanish court), as well as the absorption of almost cross-cultural characteristics in their music. Of course while Scarlatti wrote more or less exclusively for the harpsichord, Ligeti’s use of the instrument was pioneering indeed – while he only wrote three short works for it they are deservedly seen as central both to his own output and to late twentieth century harpsichord repertoire in general. The three pieces certainly encouraged other contemporary composers to use this archaic machine for their own paradoxically modernistic purposes.

I first heard Ligeti’s Continuum on an old Wergo record which our head of music at school tried out on us in class in the 1970s. I could not believe it was a harpsichord at all and was fascinated by the sonorities Ligeti managed to extract from it, notably at the end of the piece as it evaporates into a rapidly repeated note. Justin Taylor’s performance here is stunning, but I was aghast to find he takes roughly 25% longer over it than Antoinette Vischer did on the old Wergo recording – he certainly doesn’t seem to linger over it! Taylor, however projects the machine-like qualities of his instrument even more convincingly, while the superb promotional video released by Alpha in connection with the disc (see it here) takes this concept even further.

The three Ligeti pieces are interpolated most carefully in this Scarlatti-dominated recital; what astonishes most (apart from Taylor’s clinical yet always beautiful playing) is how little they jar or shock, and how seamless and cogent the programme is as an entity. I was expecting to be a little startled when the pop-influenced chaconne Hungarian Rock followed Scarlatti’s delightful A minor sonata but found that the two pieces make almost ideal, dance-like bedfellows.

Taylor’s debut disc, also on Alpha was dedicated to the music of La famille Forqueray (review here); it demonstrated a winning combination of precision, sensitivity and style and those qualities abound in the dozen Scarlatti sonatas recorded here. The first tracks set a high bar which this young player at no stage seems likely to dislodge. The restless, dizzying quality of K 141 is perfectly captured, while the delicate, gossamer Aria of K 32 emerges as an all-too-brief daydream. The elegant swiftness of K115 features crisp, wonderfully articulated playing that never feels rushed. There is ardent Iberian fire aplenty in Taylor’s Scarlatti as well as a Sudbinian sense of style and adventure which lends a crystalline modernity to these wonderful pieces. The disc ends with a radiant, moving account of the F minor sonata K 481 Andante e cantabile; directly following on from the futuristic brilliance of the Ligeti Continuum this is a calm, almost elegiac note on which to conclude.

One always hopes that discs combining the old and new in this way might attract younger converts to the singular delights of the harpsichord recital. Indeed these are heady times for the instrument – Taylor is the youngest of a generation of harpsichordists (Mahan Esfahani and Julien Wolfs are two more that immediately spring to mind) who have achieved prominence by combining intelligent musicianship with an imaginative approach to programme building.

It also helps here that Taylor is playing a superb instrument. It appears to be a modern copy (by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal) of a harpsichord originally built in 1636 by Andreas Ruckers and subsequently enhanced in 1763 by Henri Hemsch. Its ripe, golden tones could not be more apt for Scarlatti while the recording, with mics seemingly up close to the instrument projects forensic clarity as well as a pleasing warmth. Taylor’s erudite and enthusiastic notes seal the deal on an absorbing and immaculately presented issue.

Richard Hanlon


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