SCARLATTI: Sonatas, Vol. 2 = 16 Sonatas – Mordecai Shehori, piano – Cembal d’amour CD 200, 71:19 (7/20/21) [www.cembaldamour.com] ****:
Mordecai Shehori embarks upon a second excursion into the music of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), the wonderful contemporary of J.S. Bach, whose playful and inventive spirit stands as a testament to his conception of the keyboard as a vehicle for his Mediterranean sensibilities. Shehori chooses a mixture of familiar and less popular selections, to maintain variety and color.
I decided to begin my audition with one of the pieces from the 1755 Parma collection, the D Major, K. 430. Marked Non presto ma a tempo di ballo, the happy study emerges as a minuet in Italian style, with repeated, falling thirds that insist on the sound of the cuckoo. The 1755 set of thirty likes to open in major keys and end in minor; Scarlatti exploits double and broken thirds, adding alternating and rising sixths in descending passages. Shehori’s brisk tempo seems less a nod to the balletic impulse than to the toccata tradition Scarlatti may well imbibed from Handel or Clementi.
From the so-called Münster collection of 358 sonatas, Shehori chooses the Sonata in E Minor, K. 147, a lovely and expansive, intimately melancholic piece with insistent figures and sweeping gestures that attest to a pre-Romantic impulse. To counter and soothe our pained countenance, Shehori follows with the Sonata in G Major, K. 146, a galant impulse that projects a pre-Mozart sensibility, bright and impish. The ascending line likes to finish off with a fluster of trills or brisk runs, all delicately but forcefully rendered. From the Parma collection of 1755-1756, Shehori takes up challenges Scarlatti introduced that would later influence Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically in Sonata in G Major, K. 455, asking for repeated notes and alternation of the hands. The appearance of falling seconds in the pieces of this era testify to a Neapolitan and Spanish influence. Clarity of articulation and smoothness of line come to us as true evidence of the accomplished Scarlatti acolyte. Listen to fascinating bass line!
For a change of emotional tenor, try the Fuga del gatto, the “Cat’s Fugue” in G Minor, K. 30, apocryphally ascribed to Scarlatti’s cat Pulcinella, who had trod across his keyboard. The one movement, a la Shehori, has its sullen moments, despite the levity assigned to it by publishers Clementi and Longo. Shehori’s survey opens with the martial Sonata in D Major, K. 96, which likes to divide the musical line between the hands and then move through pungent staccato phrases. Shehori demonstrates the facility of his trills, which do not, according to modern practice, have to emanate from the upper note, as is the French tradition.
Ten of Shehori’s selections lie in minor keys, and of these, that in C Minor, K. 115, projects in an extensive fashion a dark tenor we find in later Mozart. Sudden onrushes of sforzato intrude on the otherwise plastic line. Even the trills – which soon assume a life of their own – emanate a haunted character, which the light and dainty filigree tries to dispel, to little avail, given the deep bass tones that follow. The idiom remains Spanish, making us think a kind of sarabande has come to disturb us. Another expansive Sonata in C Minor, K. 139, shares the Iberian sensibility, building its melodic line in gradations, with repeated tropes that color the piece in tones easily suggestive of tonalities in Goya. A Bach, canonic influence intrudes into the mix, and the music gains in glum, martial ardor. Again, we might feel Mozart’s spirit in kinship. The Sonata in G Minor, K. 347 reveals at once Spanish and French impulses, opening with a flourish that Couperin might have employed. Repetition and imitation freely intermingle in this highly imaginative, colorful piece.
A particularly intimate piece, the Sonata in F Minor, K. 19, enjoys a pre-Classical, demure sensibility, set as a kind of transparent, Spanish gavotte that might have proceeded from Lully in another venue. Shehori controls its consistently soft dynamic range with refined elegance. Even more liquid in character, the Sonata in A Minor, K. 148 might have served as a musical-box vehicle, much in the French style. Its delicate trills and turns of phrase mark the idiom as both Italianate and Spanish, and it progresses with emotional reserve.
I save my final remarks for the pearly Sonata in E Major, K. 135, a dazzling study in shifting moods, metrics, and colorful surprises. Shehori plays it as finely wrought etude in color and touch, its tripping, repetitive phrases breaking into a controlled toccata which loves its bass tones. Dazzling runs pose for Shehori no problem, and the tiny shifts in register and dynamics make for a true testament to the imaginative versatility of a supreme master of the Baroque keyboard idiom.