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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Twenty Sonatas
Margherita Torretta (piano)
rec. 14-16 April 2019, Sala Musicale Giardino, Crema, Italy
ACADEMY 2462 [50.19 + 49.56]

Two CDs for the price of one, neatly packaged in a slim cardboard casing, but played by a young Italian pianist, Margherita Torretta (born 1986), of whom you may not have heard. Why, therefore, should you purchase this collection above one by a more famous or at least better-known pianist? For instance, what about Mikhail Pletnev, Horowitz or Angela Hewitt? And that’s just the especially famous pianists, let alone a favourite of mine, on Naxos, Benjamin Frith. Then there’s the harpsichordists; you might think that Scarlatti should be played only on a harpsichord - so what about Pierre Hantaļ?

Why do I mention these recordings? Well, it’s because I think that this newcomer is in many ways, up to the very highest level - and I made this decision before I discovered the ‘blurb’ on the back of the CD proclaiming, “This collection, in the great Italian tradition, is one of the best ever recorded”. Quite a statement, which, of course, cannot fully be justified. You might, however, consider Scarlatti Sonatas to be more Spanish/Portuguese than Italian, and those Iberian qualities, on the whole, are brought out brilliantly by Torretta. She was trained in Italy and in Brussels with Nelson Delle-Vigne Fabbri and later with Charles Rosen and Fou Ts’ong, amongst others, so she has a very fine pedigree.

Scarlatti was born in the vibrant and intensely musical city of Naples (with its strong Spanish influence), lived briefly in Venice where he met Handel before going to the Medici court in Florence. Already a famous virtuoso, he then worked in Rome with his father Alessandro and alongside Corelli. Then there is a mysterious and short visit to London before in 1721 he had the call from King Joćo V of Portugal largely to teach his daughter, the Infanta Barbara. However, that was also short-lived, as Scarlatti returned to a Naples burgeoning in artistic activity and musical passion. From 1729, for the next twenty-five years he was in Madrid, where the Infanta had married into the Spanish royal family and where he would have heard the indigenous music of the ‘people’, especially the dances. His music became strongly imbued not only with the Neapolitan traditional music but also with Spanish rhythms, melodies and harmonies; the D major Sonata K.119 L125 is a good example. One fingerprint is an internal pedal point, which can often create some quite striking, even dissonant harmonies. All these experiences made him a rounded, fully developed musical personality and an international composer.

While there is much to admire and enjoy about these performances, there are also some caveats. Starting with the positives, the articulation of the rhythms and the clarity of phrasing are definite strengths, as are the often thoughtfully contrasted dynamic shadings. If there is pedalling, then it is subtle and unobtrusive – and the sonatas are well contrasted side by side.

It seems to me that the faster sonatas come off best, although the Allegros sometimes seem a little too steady and those in a minor key occasionally find Torretta a little less emotionally engaged, while her ornamentation can be over fussy. She is adamant in her booklet notes that the use of rubato is appropriate, as is the strong contrast of dynamics, which, of course, is not as possible on the harpsichord, where a general mezzo-forte is the norm.

However, these works were conceived for the harpsichord, whose sound is quite close to that of a guitar which was then, as now, the most popular instrument in Spain – and I am sure that one can detect the strumming of the guitar in the bass chords in the Sonata in D K.98 L14. One could, therefore, argue that played even by such a fine student of Scarlatti and so commanding a pianist as Torretta, one is not hearing them as Scarlatti intended., but to my mind these performances work very convincingly and bring to light aspects of these great works things which could easily be missed if played on the older instrument.

If I were to pick out three especially pleasing examples of Torretta’s approach, I would point you towards the Sonata in D minor K.294 L67 which begins like a baroque exercise, so wittily brought out and then suddenly bursting into a cascade of brilliance with imitative passages between the hands building to a climax. Torretta’s use of varying tempi here is significant, as the mood changes and moves between major and minor.

In the E minor Sonata K.98 L325, I swear that I can hear the clinking of castanets in the repeated, sometimes heavy, bass chords against the flighty right-hand figurations - and just to prove my point about Scarlatti’s internationalism, the Scherzo-like Sonata in B minor K. 377 L263 sounds very much like a Bach 2-part Invention.

So I still feel very positive about this Sonata set and, if it is any help to you readers, I can assure you that as both a teacher and an examiner I will turn, for reliable witness, to these renditions on many more occasions.

Gary Higginson

Sonata in G minor K.426 L128 [7.42]
Sonata in E major K.135 L224 [4.29]
Sonata in C minor K.158 L4 [6.46]
Sonata in D major K.118 L122 [4.56]
Sonata in D major K.119 L415 [5.29]
Sonata in D minor K.32 L423 [2.46]
Sonata in C major K.515 L255 [3.27]
Sonata in D minor K.213 L108 [8.29]
Sonata in G major K.425 L333 [3.21]
Sonata in A minor K.3 L378 [2.52]
Sonata in C major K.132 L457 [9.10]
Sonata in B minor K.27 L449 [4.17]
Sonata in B major K.262 L448 [6.05]
Sonata in D minor K.294 L67 [5.03]
Sonata in E major K.380 L23 [7.16]
Sonata in B minor K.377 L263 [2.51]
Sonata in A major K.101 L494 [5.36]
Sonata in G major K.125 L487 [2.27]
Sonata in E minor K.98 L325 [3.24]
Sonata in D major K.492 L14 [3.45]

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