Previous volumes of this mammoth set comprising all the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti have been almost unreservedly well received. Over 550 individual pieces are presented by Richard Lester on Nimbus. Releases have gone pretty much to schedule too; only Volume VII (three CDs of ‘Appendices & Diversities’) now remains to be made available.
The designation of Volumes – as ‘Venice XIV’ (1742) and ‘Venice XV’ (1749) – reflects the collection of manuscript books into which the works were bound. They were all to be found in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice after the composer’s death. This CD in some ways begins the ‘mopping up’ process, containing works from earlier in the composer’s life. From the moment you put the first CD of this sixth volume in the player, though, you’re struck by the variety, invention and delightful beauty of both the keyboard medium as developed by Scarlatti and the treasures each piece contains.
Lester shows no signs of tiring. He finds depth, novelty and sensitively explored detail in each work … listen to the metrical vigour and gentle pathos of K46, for example. Each new phrase – although very typical of the composer – is played in such a way that it expresses the composer’s cumulative thoughts and sense of architecture. By the time it’s over, you realise how closely performer has communicated just what composer wanted to convey: a gentle passion, confidence, an almost visual progression. Sonatas range in length from under two minutes to seven, though K104 is over ten and a half minutes long. Although the sequence of sonatas as presented here is varied, so mixed in texture, rhythm, melody, pace, harmony and tonal originality was Scarlatti’s pallette, that you don’t feel the need for a ‘change’.
Scarlatti wrote the works for his pupil, princess (then queen) Maria Barbara, over many years during his time at the court of King João V in Portugal. The current set (Volume VI) contains works from just these two volumes (XIV – discs 1, 2 and 3 and XV discs 4, 5 and 6). It seems more than likely - according to contemporary sources and the appended early dates (1742, 1749) – that these volumes stand separate from the main thirteen Volumes. It’s also probable that they also contain earlier music written (and compiled or collected?) not long after the simpler ‘Esercizi’ towards the start of the relationship between Scarlatti and Maria Barbara.
True, some of the music is noticeably easy. But by no means all. Significantly, such sonatas as K61, 63, 64, 72, 74, 75, 79, 82 and 85 show an expectedly strong Italian influence: Scarlatti was born in Naples. While K58 and 60 display his highly competent fugue writing. One of the characteristics for which Scarlatti is best known in this highly coloured instrumental repertoire is its exuberance and almost ‘wild’ leaps and vibrant ornamentation. Such virtuosic composition is evident throughout this set - in such sonatas as K53, 54, 56, 57, 108, 113 and 120 – the latter almost manic in complexity and, frankly, unlikely to have been within the grasp of the young princess.
As with a high proportion of all these sonatas of Scarlatti, the dance is never far away – in this case often Flamenco; it’s there not only in rhythms and chordal effects, but also as guitar sounds. Lester goes into some detail in his accompanying notes about such techniques current at the time, and how they were reproduced (or, better perhaps, reflected) in his approach to this recording.
Venice XV contains some of the more demanding pieces, and the most profound. K126 has a lachrymose despondency rather atypical of the generally upbeat feelings in which Scarlatti is most at home.
It almost goes without saying that the playing in this set is well up to that of the other CD sets in the series. Lester is adventurous where experiment is needed; he holds back when restraint aids interpretation, and has a lightness of touch that is most persuasive. Significantly he never varnishes the surface of the music. It could easily be spoilt by cloying effects for the sake of it. That’s quite a temptation given the huge variety of atmospheres Scarlatti creates. It’s resisted at all times by Lester, whose style is more classical than romantic.
Above all, he plays with a consistent clarity and attention to detail – every phrase is articulated in crystalline fashion. Yet there is no labouring of Scarlatti’s ideas or technique; no self-conscious drawing of attention to the act of navigating around the keyboard with just ten fingers: it’s the musicality, the invention, the fully digested sense of sound that remains. Let K48, a beautiful C Minor presto, start by ‘charming’ you (falsely, superficially) with its repeated rhythms and ostinato arpeggio figures. But at the end you’ll feel the (truer because deeper) sense of a thoroughly composed miniature lacking nothing. To convey this without fuss or frills is Lester’s achievement.
For comparison, collectors of this repertoire should look first at Scott Ross's set on Warner Classics next would be Dantone on separate CDs from Stradivarius; could also be considered. Yet this Nimbus collection is remarkably economically priced and still remains the best way to acquire and then enjoy this wonderful music in its entirety.
Again the harpsichord used by Lester is one built by Michael Cole after José Joachim - Lisbon (1785) with A tuned to 415, Valotti; it’s a clean, ample-sounding instrument, closely recorded and with perhaps a little too dampened an ambience. But as a result one is able to concentrate exclusively on the essence of the music.
But each of these is a small price to pay for a set – now only one (shorter) volume to go to completion – which seems likely to stand the test of time for its variety, expert playing, scope and for the undaunted and imaginative way Lester (and colleagues on Volume V) tackle the music.
Mark Sealey, Musicweb-international.com