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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757) 52 Sonatas
Lucas Debargue (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem SONY 19075944462 [4 CDs: 235:06]
Lucas Debargue is one of the most exciting pianists to grace the concert platform today. His impressive rise to fame has been unconventional by any standards. He was born in Paris in 1990 and began piano lessons at the age of eleven. At fifteen, he switched to studying literature at the Paris Diderot University. Three years later he returned to the piano under the wing of Rena Chereshevskaya, graduating at the École Normale de Musique de Paris in 2016. The previous year he took fourth prize at the 2015 Tchaikovsky Competition, much to the chagrin of jury members Boris Berezovsky and Peter Donohoe, who thought he should have been placed higher. He secured a Sony contract, and this is his fourth album for the label. His debut disc in 2016 was a live concert from the Salle Cortot in Paris, where he began his programme with four Scarlatti Sonatas. Since then he has frequently featured the composer in many of his recitals. Here he has selected fifty-two of the sonatas.
Scarlatti composed his 555 sonatas for the harpsichord, but Debargue here reclaims them for the piano. There is some debate today regarding Baroque music played on period instruments vs. modern day instruments. I have had much discussion over the years with a friend of mine and fellow reviewer, who feels that only the harpsichord can do true justice to these pieces. I totally disagree, and if I lay my cards on the table, I prefer the modern concert grand. It confers greater gradation of sound, a more finely calibrated range of dynamics, and more variegated spectrum of colour. My first introduction to these magnificent works came via Vladimir Horowitz, who recorded and played a substantial selection. Listening to his wonderful recordings illustrates exactly what I mean.
Debargue’s fascination with the sonatas began when he was ten and discovered K431 in G major, the shortest of the 555 at just under a minute. This particular gem ushers in CD 3. In 2017, he acquired Kenneth Gilbert’s mammoth eleven-volume edition and sight-read through all thirty-seven hours of music over the following days. He also mentions in his liner notes that Scott Ross’s definitive harpsichord traversal of the complete oeuvre was a profound influence.
In approaching this project, Debargue tended to pair the sonatas, as his research confirms that the composer intended this in many instances. So, generally, a slow movement is followed by a fast dance movement in the same key. On occasion, he has followed his own instincts with the pairings. So, there is alternation of tempo and tonalities, with harmonic progression running the course of the four volumes. All repeats are observed, and Debargue has avoided the use of pedals almost entirely.
With Scarlatti, I am always struck by the music’s kaleidoscopic range. Dances, gaiety, passionate expressions of sorrow and regret, courtly processions, strumming of guitars, flamenco, fandango, you name it, it is all there. Such are the inexhaustible treasures in these sonatas that I am almost at a loss as to where to start. The beginning is as good a place as any. CD 1 opens with the most substantial sonata in the collection. Running for 9 minutes, K206 in E major is equable yet musing and, at times, there is hesitancy in the step. The tensile rhythm of K531, in the same key, follows and provides contrasting assured confidence. K447 in F sharp major likewise has a spring in its gait, and Debargue’s thirds are effervescent and sparkling. What a contrast when we come to K109, which ends the first disc. Here the music is weighted with sadness and resignation.
The more I listen to these performances, the more impressed I am with Debargue’s thrilling pianism. It is technically brilliant, cleanly articulated, imaginatively wrought and fantasy-driven. Take K6 in F major, for example, where rhythmically tight pace, pearl-like scales and stylish ornamentation coalesce seamlessly; it is pure magic. The music takes a wistful glance back in K69 in F minor, with the glowing embers of nostalgia informing K474. A perfect foil for the latter is its pairing K253, likewise in the key of E flat major, where the embers reawaken, ignite and take on a new life. In similar vein is the carbonated fizz of K545.
A beautifully voiced and well-regulated Bösendorfer 280VC has been chosen for this recording project. It has a warm, rounded tone, with plenty of power when called for. The Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin provides a sympathetic and natural acoustic, allowing detail and clarity to emerge. Everything about this production spells quality, and I must make a special mention of the artwork, which is superb. Stephen Greenbank
Previous review: Richard Masters