D. Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas
Every so often a major pianist reclaims Scarlatti for the piano with an outstanding recording – Andras Schiff on Decca (3/89 – nla) was probably the last – and this is certainly such an occasion. In a rather cantankerous way I want to cheer. As Ralph Kirkpatrick put it, Scarlatti’s harpsichord, while supremely itself, is continually menacing a transformation into something else, and I’ve never felt the transcendental aspects of the sonatas suffered distortion or any loss of vividness when projected by top-class virtuoso pianists of the requisite insight. Over the years haven’t there been a few memorable recordings – Horowitz’s, for example, of 1964 for CBS (now on Sony, 7/94) – to prove it?
Yes, special pleading, I admit. The relation of the music to harpsichord sound could hardly be closer – you can’t argue on that point! – and of course it wouldn’t have been composed the way it is for a different instrument. I suppose the case for not regarding it as off-limits to pianists rests on the fact that so much of it seems to have been conceived in extra-harpsichord terms. Isn’t any performance of it an act of transcription, in a sense?
Enter Mikhail Pletnev. A two-CD album seems hardly sufficient to contain the feast of thrilling and imaginative playing he offers here. But let’s put the music first; 140 minutes of Scarlatti is hardly enough to display the full range of this inexhaustibly surprising composer. I like very much the way Pletnev makes us participate as we listen to him. He is marvellous at suggesting imaginary orchestrations and stimulating our own imagination. He makes us aware of the different vantage points as the music passes before us, of the different tones of voice and rhetorical inflexions – as various in these sonatas as the events in them are unpredictable. There are dances and fiestas and processions here, serenades and laments, and evocations of everything from the rudest folk music to courtly entertainments and churchly polyphony; and as the kaleidoscope turns you marvel at the composer who could embrace such diversity and shape it and put it all on to the keyboard. No wonder Chopin found Scarlatti a kindred spirit.
This is strongly individual playing, be warned. Pletnev’s free-ranging poetic licence – with which I have no problem because he seems to me to use it so intelligently, never as an indulgence – may not be to your taste, and admittedly it does beg a few questions. Not that his spectacular virtuosity is likely to be controversial: this really is hors de categorie and enormously enjoyable. And the evocations of the harpsichord are often very witty – only a fool would play Scarlatti on the piano as if the harpsichord had never existed. But Pletnev doesn’t shrink from using the full resources of the piano, sustaining pedal included, and if you baulk at the prospect of that as the means to an end he will probably not be for you. The sustaining pedal is indeed dangerous in music which is almost wholly to do with lines, not washes of colour, and I do sometimes wonder about his use of it when – in the F sharp minor Sonata, Kk25, for instance – its effect is to make us see Scarlatti as if through Mendelssohn’s eyes. Yet moments of such falsification are rare. As often as not when Pletnev appears to be on the verge of stepping outside Scarlatti’s world, or reinventing a little bit of it, it’s because of some shaft of insight vouchsafed to his extraordinary musical mind that is well worth having.
Restraint, or perhaps I should say conformity, is not characteristic of him. This I think we knew already, didn’t we! I can see that a more pertinent objection might be that he does too much, that he applies a lot of ‘treatment’ and never stands back. I don’t agree. Give or take a bit of nitpicking, my feeling is he’s always musically on the ball. Characterization is everything, and though he can be a mite coy in the reflective sonatas he generally goes straight to the heart of the matter. The vigorous, full tone in the quick numbers is a joy to have, and I suppose I admire most of all the way he makes sound immediately command character. That is something only the best artists are able to do.
Still undecided? If so, you could try the first tracks of either disc – the D major Sonatas, Kk443 and 96; or for irresistible virtuosity, the A major, Kk24 (first disc, track 7). And the B minor Sonata, Kk27 (first disc, track 5) should indicate whether Pletnev’s freely expressive style (and the pedalling), in a different kind of sonata, is acceptable to you – or anathema.
I never had doubts about the recorded sound but have come to like it more and more: this is one of the best piano recordings I’ve heard recently. The sessions took place at the Abbey Road Studios in London in October 1994, and a little bird tells me that in only two days Pletnev recorded half as many sonatas again from which this selection was made. Terrific stuff. A rougher achievement than Horowitz’s, by a fraction – if only because spontaneity and even improvisation are more important to Pletnev in the performance of Scarlatti – but I would say it’s more far-reaching, musically, and therefore more interesting.'