Scarlatti Sonatas: Angela Hewitt, Eri Mantani, Yevgeny Sudbin

SCARLATTI Sonatas:

Angela Hewitt – Hyperion 68184, 79:14 (9/29/17) ****½ :

Eri Mantani – MDG SACD 904-1987-6, 77:52 (1/23/17) ****:

Yevgeny Sudbin – BIS SACD 2138, 74:30  (3/14/2016) *****:

A wealth of recent Scarlatti recitals which capture the dual nature of this singular musical genius.

Midway through a Scarlatti recital, astonishment prompts the puzzled query: How does he do it? Every sonata is distinct, full of surprise displaying a special kind of playful ingenuity. How could such variety spring from a single source? Having read all of Ralph Kirkpatrick’s massive biography, which includes an elaborate “anatomy” of Scarlatti’s subjects and themes, I can attest that there is no easy explanation. However, a simple scheme has allowed me to imagine Scarlatti’s inventive powers as elements of two distinct worlds that both spar and combine in ways that give his music its marked sense of contrast, unpredictability and delight.

I call these sources “calle” (street) and “corte” (the court). The deepest source for Scarlatti’s music is surely the Italian tradition. With the ascendency of the Baroque, this style would conquer the 17th and 18th century as a portable science and an aesthetic sensibility. In the case of the long displaced composer-in-residence in Madrid, this musical world was a compound of instinct, technique and sensibility. We hear it in the stunning fugue K481 on this recording by Angela Hewitt. Far from asserting the familiar Scarlatti dazzle, it strives for the impersonality and serenity of the polyphony of Palestrina. This is an underrated dimension in Scarlatti’s sonatas, but one that has been recently recovered in recitals featuring more of the minor-key sonatas.

In the crucial last decade of Scarlatti’s life, the court was a fraught place. Philip V was incapacitated by madness. The engines of state operated behind the scenes while the court ceremonial became utterly bizarre. The day began at 5 p.m with dinner at 3 a.m. In the long dark evening, music played a central role, but it was the legendary castrato Farinelli who assumed the dominant position, singing the same nine arias to pacify the afflicted monarch. Even as Scarlatti was pushed to the margins, his art ripened. His late works go back deeper into the learned Italian scienza of music.

Yet at the same time the calle was never far away. In the long, sun-dazzled day before the evening’s royal events, Scarlatti wandered the streets absorbing the riotous sounds of popular music, Iberian-Moorish folk motifs, guitars and mandolins, castanets, and dance rhythms. These are the famous influences which, transmuted by the composer’s unique genius, make up the Scarlattian idiom, daring and his eternally fresh.

The 555 sonatas of Scarlatti constitute an enormous patrimony to pianists. The finest exponents of this specifically pianistic Scarlatti (setting aside the harpsichord) are keenly sensitive to both the calle and corte elements. We want flash and dazzle but also the spell-inducing magic of the aria and the fugue. Who is better to undertake this then the veteran Bach scholar Angela Hewitt?  We expect a thoughtful and well-programmed approach to the recital and we are not disappointed.

In her second outing on Hyperion label, Hewitt again follows Kirkpatrick’s notion that the sonatas can be played as pairs, giving us four such pairings. The effect is to nudge Scarlatti closer to Haydn, even though Scarlatti’s binary forms contain only a hint of the narrative style of the Austrian master. Hewitt connects all the pieces by moving stepwise around the circle of fifths, shifting from major to minor.

One anticipates, too, a deep somber fugue in a minor key, something that would make even Farinelli’s eyes roll back in rapture while the lunatic King nods off. Hewitt saves that for last with the magnificent Sonata in F minor K481. Her Bach pedigree shines through here as elsewhere.

This pianist does not fuss overmuch with the ornamentation. The accacciatora (the guitar strum effect) are delivered as modest filigree. There is never the sense of an awkward transcription; all is pianistically-fluent and aesthetically confident in the same way as her lovely Rameau recordings. I would have preferred fewer familiar pieces (there are so many other choices), but this will not likely be a problem for our readers who don’t listen to Scarlatti obsessively as I do.

All in all, this is a commendable recital by our most skilled exponent of the 18th-century repertoire. The recording possesses the typical warmth we come to expect from this outstanding label, (although I feel like I am about 5 rows further back than I would like).

The audiophile label Musikproduktion Darbinghaus und Grimm (MDG) has also contributed to the wealth of recent high-quality Scarlatti recordings with their 2017 release of a recital by Japanese pianist Eri Mantani. The sound is marginally better on this SACD issue. We are close enough to have the taut anxiety of the page-turner. If Hewitt represents measured self-possession, favoring corte over the extroversion of the calle, Manatani is the opposite. While she also favors the paired sonatas, joined by K number or key relationship, she has gone out of her way to choose the virtuosic pieces, highlighting hand-crossing, rapidly repeated notes, and above all, velocity.  Perhaps, her penchant for the allegros pushes the music to the point of overstimulation: I would not have minded a couple more cantabile adagios for breathing space. As for her articulation and finesse, it approaches the ultimate master of the repertoire, Yevgeny Sudbin. This is perhaps more exciting than the Hyperion recording, but in no sense  artistically superior.

There is also a striking F-minor work here, K 239. Perhaps, when this was the go-to key when the King was in an especial ornery mood. The Scarlatti connoisseur looks for new treasures, and may well find one with the F-sharp minor Allegro. It is like finding yet another egg-laying mammal on an island continent of wonders. Part fugue with toccata-like improvisations it has the obsessive quality of the gambler, which Scarlatti was. In fact, it was because of his outstanding debts that his patron queen could blackmail him into spending his last years writing down sonatas for posterity. It was hard work, and all the more vexing with Farinelli melismatically exfoliating endlessly in the background.

Taken together, these are a huge boon to Scarlatti lovers. I would suggest starting with the Hewitt unless one already has her first recording, in which case the MDG recording would make a rewarding and instructive comparison. Of course, if our readers have somehow missed the epoch-making recordings of Yevgeny Sudbin on BIS, this omission should be repaired forthwith. (BIS 2005,***** BIS 2016 ****½ ) Sudbin captures both aspects of Scarlatti’s genius, corte and calle, better than anyone has ever done, his ornamentation is sui generis  and he is flattered by the best sound production in the business.  In fact, the second SACD cannot even improve on the original 2005 recording, which is as good as this music could ever sound.

—Fritz Balwit

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