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- Scarlatti The Complete Keyboard Sonatas Volume 3
These six CDs form the third volume in a series of seven that will eventually contain all Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas. This latest splendid release is wholly consistent with the extraordinarily high standard set by Richard Lester in the first two volumes - and is to be recommended without reservation.
Volumes I (NI 1725) and II (NI 1726) have six CDs each and were released in 2006; Volumes IV, V and VI (NI 1728, 1729 and 1730) with six, five and six CDs respectively were scheduled for this spring; Volume VII (NI 1731) will comprise three CDs and is planned for release in the summer of 2007. So over 550 individual sonatas, thirty-eight CDs and nearly 40 hours of wonderful, colourful, varied, energetic and subtle music.
There is actually no shortage of such collections: Dantone’s individual CD volumes on Stradivarius are part of a worthy competitor series to Lester’s here. The mammoth undertaking by Warner Classics (62092) with Scott Ross is one of a kind, but over 20 years old. Then there is a Naxos series using the piano with different pianists for each CD; but it’s coming out slowly. In fact, on the evidence so far, it does seem as though Lester’s playing, when taken with the immaculate preparation and presentation of the whole corpus, puts the Nimbus set at the top of the list.
Scarlatti, born in Naples in that year of years for music, 1685, did write other music though it’s the keyboard sonatas – all written for Maria Barbara, the young daughter of Portuguese King João V, to whom Scarlatti was appointed music master in 1720 - which are of greatest interest. Just 30 of these appeared in print while Scarlatti was still living. The rest were published in Venice by Farinelli, to whom the now Queen Maria Barbara bequeathed all the sonatas after Scarlatti’s death.
Amazingly, it seems certain that the majority of these wonderful works were written towards the end of Scarlatti’s life – between 1738 and 1756. The ‘K’ numbers, which are now adopted almost universally, are from the system elaborated by American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911-1984) in roughly chronological order during the 1940s and 50s. So we’re getting sonatas (K296 – K387) which come from the mid point in this remarkable output.
It was Kirkpatrick who wrote ‘Domenico Scarlatti was without doubt the most original keyboard composer of his time.’ This originality, this indefatigable inventiveness, is but one of the strengths which Lester conclusively demonstrates. The Scarlatti keyboard oeuvre is perhaps misunderstood in that its 'visitors' often expect either progression in the 'biographical' sense, or an almightily profound monolithic whole akin to Bach's cantatas or the Beethoven piano sonatas.
Or, worse, those unfamiliar with the Scarlatti sonatas expect a series of ‘samey’ disjointed trivia. This terrific Nimbus set - and the others so far released in the series - demonstrates instead that Scarlatti produced joyous, varied and entertaining pieces that are very much of their time; none lasts more than seven minutes or so, and most half of that. For something self-contained, yet containing the world, walk down the lush, well kempt and meandering perfumed paths cultivated one after another in K314 and K 318 to K 320 for examples of truly vibrant biodiversity! Lester plays them with the telling and wholly positive possessiveness of a true teacher and lover of this wide and extensive soundscape. As if opening a case of jewels with pride, yet no hint of bombast or arrogance.
These sonatas look in a variety of directions for their inspiration and impact: in 1729 the Portuguese court moved to Andalusia, where Scarlatti heard folk and gypsy music - the ‘tunes of carriers, muleteers and common people’ as Burney put it. These influences are apparent in such sonatas as K298 (which is reminiscent of the Spanish mandolin-like bandurria), K315 and K321. K333 begins sounding like a village band and becomes more and more frenzied.
Richard Lester's teachers were Bernard Roberts and George Malcolm; earlier single volumes of the Scarlatti sonatas by Lester, who is a respected academic and writer in the UK and abroad, have been understandably very well received. His playing is light of touch and detached to the extent that the music speaks for itself; and at the same time intense and poetic.
Without empathy with the spirit of the sonatas, so substantial are they that it would be difficult to sustain freshness over such a long haul. Lester does – and without any kind of superficial reaching for novelty for its own sake. There are effects – vernacular, imitative (listen to the ‘bells’ in K298), romantic, sacred, improvisatory (listen to K314, K 317 and 318), militaristic (K380) and – ever present – the dance (many in the K330s and K340s, for example). All are carried off with vigour and a certain suaveness that does the music proud.
Lester’s gift is to present the sonatas as carefully crafted jewels; he’s immersed in the structure, sonorities and melodic invention of each and every one. As a result you never tire of hearing what’s coming next. There is the feeling of a series of ‘studies’ in the same way that you have with Bach’s 48. Truly, that’s more a sense of unity and cohesion than anything dry and forced. But Lester’s playing is so unself-consciously careful, delicate without being either clipped or brittle – and oh so poised.
The harpsichord is by Michael Cole after José Joachim Antunes (1785) with A tuned to 415; the organ (for K 328, Disc 3) is that of All Saints Church Freiern Barnet, which was built in 1984 with a specification similar to the instrument of the Chapel of the Royal Palace in Madrid.
Dedicated listeners are referred to The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style (ISBN: 0521481406) for a completer picture. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be enthusiastic about this set – so enthusiastic, in fact, as to be impatient for Volume IV.
Mark Sealey , Musicweb-international.com