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CD Review

Domenico Scarlatti

Complete Sonatas Volume II

Venice III & V (1753)
  • 90 Sonatas, K 206-295
Richard Lester, harpsichord and organ
Nimbus NI1726
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The second volume in this landmark series (Volume I – NI1725 – was very favorably reviewed in May 2007) of the complete Scarlatti sonatas played by Richard Lester (harpsichord and organ) is every bit as solid, spectacular – indeed every bit as commendable as the first. Lester's playing is taut, clean, responsive and inspired. It neither lacks color nor tries to introduce it gratuitously. The result is a second set of discs with a quasi Mozartian transparency and directness. The impression is of the absence of virtuosity; while in fact technical and interpretive skills of the highest order are evident in revealing the variety, joie de vivre, vigor and at times quite unexpected sophistication of this endlessly fascinating solo keyboard music.

Scarlatti, born in 1685, developed late as a composer and only really after 1720 did he begin to write works which stand out and have lasting interest. The turning point was his appointment as the chapel music master to King João V, his brother, Don Antonio, and nine-year-old daughter, Maria Barbara. By 1729 she was married to the heir to the Spanish throne. Scarlatti was to spend the rest of his life in her service, which gave him the opportunity to travel throughout the Iberian peninsula absorbing and learning from the many local musical traditions and currents.

As far as we can tell, it was for Maria Barbara, princess and queen, that Scarlatti wrote the bulk of his sonatas. Specifically, between the late 1730s and his death in 1757. After that Maria Barbara made fifteen bound volumes available to the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, which is where the Volumes get their names: the six CDs in the present set are 'Venice III – V' (1753). Each Venice Volume occupies two CDs. Rich with the fire of Spanish folk dances, this wonderful collection of sonatas is in no sense an exercise or exploration of key, style or color in the way that Bach's 48 are, even though Scarlatti called some of the pieces in the earlier volume esercizi. There is variety; there is color; there are moods, experiments and virtuosity. But these are in the service of self-contained compositions all capable of eliciting an individual and discrete response – somewhat as Beethoven's piano sonatas do. Not a 'set'.

Yet progress there is: increasingly in this second volume the sonatas 'stretch themselves over a variety of moods', as Ralph Kirkpatrick (the first to catalog Scarlatti's works and the 'K' of their titles) put it. K206 is a good case in point: charged with the passion of Flamenco's cante, it mimics the ornamentation of that form. But somewhat filtered through courtly restraint – which is highly characteristic of Scarlatti: he is not writing 'tone poems' or faux folk music. The same influence is felt in K 208. Similarly K 207 is influenced by the jota, another dance with a strong castanet-like rhythm, as can also be heard in K 239. Indeed the dance is everywhere in these sonatas and can be unmistakably driving half (K214, 216, 217, 220 – 222, 224 – 228, 231, 233 and 235) the sonatas in the first Volume alone. There are increasing numbers of slow movements, a sign – according to Lester's accompanying notes – of Scarlatti's greater maturity. Just as significant in terms of evocation and painting is Scarlatti's ability to conjure up quintessentially Spanish sounds… K220, 247 and K287 and 288 with the horizontal trumpets typical of Spanish organs. Other 'effects' include a guitar in K260, bagpipes with drones and flute in K243. But these are not gratuitous, nor really only to display virtuosity on an instrument of which his young pupil might not, perhaps, have thought it capable.

Lester writes in the accompanying notes, which are a little on the skimpy side for the scale of this enterprise, that his choice of instrument was influenced heavily by those used by Maria Barbara's family at their various palaces. She had seven harpsichords and five pianofortes at her disposal. On the first two discs of this set Lester plays a copy of a two-manual harpsichord by Stephen Wessell. On discs 3 – 6 a copy by Michael Cole of a harpsichord from 1785 by the outstanding Portuguese maker, Joachim José Antunes (1731-1811), is used. For K287 and K288 the organ of All Saints church in Friern Barnet North London is heard here since the score specifies a 'chamber organ with two keyboards, of flutes and reeds'.

Lester's playing is consistent without being either trying or tiring. It's playing which could only be as inspired as it is because of love for and immersion in the music. These recordings, which are going a long way to marking Lester's card for the future, took place over a number of months in the summer of 2005; this is time enough for the player to reflect and refine, but not long enough for his interpretive ideas to develop into what, however excellent, might then become inconsistent.

The six CD set contains almost six and a half hours of listening; so it's clearly to everyone's advantage – not least to that of the reputation of Scarlatti, most of whose keyboard sonatas tend to be in heard in recitals of selections – that a real sense of variety emerges so unequivocally… of timbre, tempo, tone, touch, timing, texture and temperament. This Lester achieves by both a first class technique and a real love for and engagement in the world in which Scarlatti was working. Specifically, after listening to one or more of these CDs, one is struck by the extent to which the performer conveys everything of the composer's creative wit and will: it never wants to run dry. This is more because Scarlatti brings his influences (the dance, the Andalusian warmth, the somewhat isolated sobriety of the court, the quirky, the sardonic, the floridly melodic) into the music, rather than skewing what the harpsichord could do towards the end of its heyday in order to imitate or reflect those influences. It takes detachment and quite some act of faith to do that. Lester has both in good measure.

If you're in the market for superb playing of superbly individualistic high Baroque harpsichord music with all the variety and color of Scarlatti; or keen to explore this repertoire of his based on having heard individual sonatas, and certainly other volumes in this series, don't hesitate to buy this well-recorded and infinitely satisfying second release. It seems likely to become the definitive collection. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Copyright © 2007, Mark Sealey