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Scarlatti essential 5554732
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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
The Essential Scarlatti
37 Keyboard Sonatas
Michael Korstick (piano)
rec. 26 September-1 October 2020, Deutschland Kammermusiksaal
CPO 555 473-2 [77:19 + 78:21]

I have admired Michael Korstick’s Liszt in the past (review), and while Scarlatti might seem a bit of a leap from there this is an artist whose already substantial recorded legacy ranges from Beethoven to Koechlin and Debussy via Mendelssohn and Schubert and many others in between, so I imagine he can play just about anything.

With regard to this recording, a certain amount is made of the sketchy nature of Scarlatti’s score texts particularly when it comes to ornamentation, but every keyboard player is in the same boat in that regard - not to mention use of post-Scarlatti piano innovations such as the sustain pedal, and indeed the piano itself, a topic also covered in the booklet notes to this release. There are many ways to approach these sonatas, and the taste and musicality of the player is very much on show at all times. This programme is by no means random, presenting the entire thirty-two sonatas of Auswahlband IV of the G. Henle Verlag, with the addition of another four of Scarlatti’s reportedly favourite sonatas which are published separately by G. Henle Verlag. “The selection of pieces for Volume IV has at its goal the presentation of what may be described as the essence or ‘The Best of’ Scarlatti’s art of invention.”

When it comes to Scarlatti on the piano, one of my most frequently visited references has been Mikhail Pletnev’s double CD on Virgin Classics (review), and the pleasant discovery here is that Korstick’s set is entirely complementary to Pletnev. There are a few overlaps, but the programmes and stylistic contrasts are different enough for both to live comfortably side by side on any collector’s shelf. Pletnev tends to a more fantastic view of this music, and often has a more spiky touch with greater extremes than Korstick, who seeks to bring out each sonata’s lyrical character where appropriate. The opener, K 380 is one of Scarlatti’s more famous sonatas, and both Pletnev and Korstick come up with similar timings, the former teasing with some light rubato and soft dynamics, bringing out countermelodies and surprising us through understatement. Korstick is equally inventive, using perhaps the more conventional echo effect with each repetition but keeping us alert through contrasts of colour with Scarlatti’s miniature military fanfares, and twinkling through those sophisticated modulations further along. Korstick lays his cards on the table here, promising a deliciously enjoyable ride, but one in the service of the composer as much as it is in the safe hands of a skilled and imaginatively communicative performer.

There is magic in the air with many of these sonatas, and Korstick knows how to bring these qualities out just about every time. Admiring Korstick’s lyrical tendencies in these pieces I went straight to K 208 which opens CD 2. This is an Adagio e cantabile, so its lyrical character is even written into its tempo indication. Korstick revels in its expressive simplicity, maintaining restraint when it comes to ornamentation, refusing to distort the upper line while stressing darker harmonies to create that pre-Schubertian drama in the piece. Another Scarlatti piano disc I have enjoyed greatly is that of Yevgeny Sudbin on the BIS label (review), and it is interesting to contrast each player’s approach to detail here. Sudbin is freer in general, throwing in a whole load of extra bass octaves at certain moments and elaborating considerably at the repeats. You hear different details of harmony brought out by each player, Sudbin digging into inner lines and shorter harmonic arcs into a quasi-romantic view of the piece, where Korstick’s restraint has its own depth and poignancy in a more open and less wrought but no less expressive view.

Excitement abounds in the high jinx of K 239 and K 427, and intense counterpoint and improvisatory rumination is brought forth in the more extended K 247, though Korstick’s 7:18 is relatively brisk when compared to Evgeny Zarafiants’ 9:12 on Naxos (review). We could go through every sonata and be here all week, but the story here is that Michael Korstick’s Scarlatti is recommendable at every level. Beautifully recorded with excellent but not too dry clarity, the piano sound is perfect for these sonatas, and all of Korstick’s life-enhancing performances are reason enough to discover or rediscover each and every piece. Students will be grateful that the programme more or less follows the ordering of sonatas in the G. Henle Verlag edition, those built-in contrasts being sufficient for a satisfying sequence. The booklet notes add an explanation for this and have useful and not overly scholarly information on Scarlatti and these sonatas.

Dominy Clements

Sonata K380 in E major [5:37]
Sonata K9 in D minor [3:01]
Sonata K1 in D minor [2:02]
Sonata K8 in G minor [7:18]
Sonata K8 in G minor (alternative version) [3:48]
Sonata K11 in C minor [2:33]
Sonata K20 in E major [2:48]
Sonata K27 in B minor [3:57]
Sonata K29 in D major [4:34]
Sonata K32 in D minor [2:30]
Sonata K33 in D major [3:01]
Sonata K87 in B minor [6:28]
Sonata K113 in A major [3:47]
Sonata K118 in D major [4:52]
Sonata K119 in D major [4:55]
Sonata K132 in C major [7:24]
Sonata K135 in E major [4:17]
Sonata K146 in G major [2:50]
Sonata K162 in E major [5:15]
Sonata K208 in A major [3:47]
Sonata K239 in F minor [2:57]
Sonata K247 in C-sharp minor [7:18]
Sonata K322 in A major [3:18]
Sonata K427 in G major [2:07]
Sonata K450 in G minor [3:17]
Sonata K454 in G major [4:44]
Sonata K460 in C major [6:30]
Sonata K466 in F minor [7:50]
Sonata K481 in F minor [7:05]
Sonata K491 in D major [4:51]
Sonata K492 in D major [3:46]
Sonata K502 in C major [4:06]
Sonata K514 in C major [3:49]
Sonata K531 in E major [3:42]
Sonata K532 in A minor [3:12]
Sonata K159 in C major 'La caccia' [2:17]
Sonata K141 in D minor [3:34]

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