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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
52 Sonatas
Lucas Debargue (piano)
rec. 2018, Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin-Dahlem
SONY CLASSICAL 19075944462 [4 CDs: 235:06]

Every piano-fancier has their champion of choice when it comes to the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. For many, Vladimir Horowitz provides the perfect entrée to the fantastic world of Scarlatti, with his staggering displays of technical fireworks and unique ability to swerve between moments of great pathos and moments of comedy. Some prefer the more level-headed but always elegant Scarlatti of the late Maria Tipo while others swear by the performances of her Italian compatriot Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli whose Scarlatti has the cruel, brilliant glint of a sharpened blade.

The young Frenchman Lucas Debargue (b. 1990) has entered the lists with this new box set of fifty-two sonatas for Sony Classical, and the result is a happy one. The playing is colourful, thoughtful, energetic, and affectionate. Debargue has a longstanding interest in this music; his first CD after his 4th-place Tchaikovsky Competition finish featured four Scarlatti sonatas and an original improvisation on a fifth (review). Debargue’s interpretations owe much to the stylistic traits found in the complete Scarlatti sonata recordings of the late harpsichordist Scott Ross. He acknowledges this in his own notes, paying homage in particular to Ross’s emphasis on a cantabile melodic line and a willingness to use plentiful rubato in the pursuit of character.

These are for the most part among the lesser-played of Scarlatti’s hundreds of keyboard “essercizi.” Debargue seems to have purposefully avoided major chestnuts like the E Major (K. 380), A Minor (K. 54), D Major (K. 96), or the A Major (K. 39). It would be impossible to discuss every sonata here (for a full list, please condult one of the online stores), but there are a handful that I come back to again and again. The C Minor Sonata K. 115 (Disc 3, Track 7) is a little-played sonata that deserves to be better-known. The strumming discords of a distant guitar, sultry trills that conjure up an oppressive summer night in Seville, a quasi-operatic melody that gets caught in a repetitive sequence, seeming to evoke a pent-up sexual frustration that cannot be openly expressed. These are all perfectly captured by Debargue. In the F Minor Sonata K. 462 (Disc 3, Track 9), Debargue finds an intimate sound that he maintains throughout, yet he still manages to point up the odd little syncopations. He performs this sleight of hand with subtlety and skill, making us feel the slight sense of unease that comes from the rhythmic displacement without hitting us over the head with it. Debargue is not afraid to control the tempo in a prestissimo sonata like the B-flat Major, K. 545 (CD 4, Track 10); it is fast but not out of control. With this sort of controlled tempo, he is able to find attractive phrase shapes that elude other pianists.

Debargue parts ways with his colleagues past and present in his performance of the popular A Major K. 113 (Disc 1, Track 8). When placed beside the flowing Harold Bauer and speed demons like Simon Barere or Mikhail Pletnev, Debargue’s tempo seems quite measured. He uses this more relaxed tempo as an opportunity to discover colour possibilities ignored by others who see the sonata primarily as a finger sprint. Even at a slower speed, Debargue manages to avoid the tonal heaviness present in the 1955 recording by Emil Gilels.

Some might find Debargue’s use of rubato and agogic accents annoying. He has a tendency to slow down at significant cadences, a habit that occasionally draws attention to itself. His wholehearted embrace of a wide colour palette in this music, however, forgives a multitude of rhythmic sins. It should be noted also that this is not a set that one should listen to from beginning to end. Debargue’s new collection is rather like a box of expensive chocolates, to be dipped into at the end of a long day, one or two sonatas at a time. I am grateful to M. Debargue for exploring so many off-the-beaten-track sonatas in such a sensitive and thought-provoking manner. I look forward to his next release.

Richard Masters

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