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Twang, Twang, Twang: Scarlatti with Alain Planès

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D. Scarlatti, Essercizi K.1-30, Alain Planès
Over and over, the little gems of Scarlatti’s we call “sonatas” surprise, amuse, and delight. I grew up with Scarlatti on the harpsichord, but soon after discovering the peerless Pletnev’s interpretation on the piano, I switched allegiance. Since then, only Pierre Hantaï’s recent, delightful disc on naïve/astree has offered truly satisfactory Scarlatti on the harpsichord. Now behold the latest perversion: Scarlatti on the fortepiano.

If the name twang twang twang was not already taken, I’d make it my Web site dedicated to the fortepiano. That sorry hybrid of an instrument has had a troubled past, usually offending both pianists and harpsichordists, by offering the worst of two worlds with few of their respective good qualities. But much has been done to resuscitate the much maligned fortepiano since pioneers like Melvin Tan, Malcolm Bilson, and Robert Levin brought it back to the public ear. Andreas Staier’s Haydn Concerti were a splendid case for the instrument, and René Jacobs’s use of the fortepiano in his Nozze di Figaro benefitted the performance greatly.

Here now is further proof that the twangy transition bastard, that twilight creature of keyboard development, presents in itself some very pleasing characteristics. It better, too, because there is no historical claim to interpretive accuracy to playing the Essercizi K.1-30 of Scarlatti on a fortepiano… much less one that is, like Planès’ Schantz, from circa 1800. (There were some early hybrids in the instrument collection of the Spanish court that Scarlatti may still have seen towards the end of his life, but it is questionable if he ever played on them and it is certain that he did not have such future instruments in mind when composing the works included on this disc.)

The first thirty ‘sonatas’ of his 555 to be published, the Essercizi here included are far from juvenilia: instead, they contain many delights. After all, Scarlatti was already an experienced composer when he moved to the Portuguese court in 1719. K1 and 9 in D minor, K14 in G major, K8 in G minor (those keys and D major make up half the ‘exercises’) as well as K3, 11, 17, 24, 25, and 27 might be among the most popular and can, not coincidentally, be heard on Pletnev’s disc. Call them exercises, sonatas, capriccios, or whatever you wish (Charles Burney, the 18th-century music historian, is quoted in the excellent booklet calling – and perfectly summarizing – them “original and happy freaks”) fly in the face of all convention. They are truly sui generis, the musical equivalent to El Greco’s style. Only in miniature.

The story of a cat walking across the keyboard having inspired Scarlatti to the wistfully mad K30 fugue may be lore, but the freshness and timelessness of every little ditty is undeniable. Whether driven by one of the most unconventional and musically radical, literal minds or out of naiveté, Scarlatti and his keyboard ditties are a treasure. “Happy freaks” indeed, lovable and bizarre ones as they are.

Alain Planès’s playing is vigorous, full of conviction, and ready at any point to convey the joy that lies within each exercise. His Schantz pianoforte’s unique sound merits the recording alone. At first the sonatas sound a bit heavy, a little slow to get going, but that impression goes away as soon as you listen for a while and automatically stop comparing them to harpsichord or pure piano versions. Although over two hours of fortepiano may be too much for some, the energy with which Planès imbues the sonatas is infectious. Far more than just a curiosità, this is one of the finest (certainly most novel) Scarlatti recordings I’ve heard in a long time. (To be fair, Linda Nicholson has also just released a CD with Scarlatti on the fortepiano for Capriccio – something in the water?)

The presentation is in line with the series of exquisite issues that have made Harmonia Mundi one of the most exciting publishers of music these days.

HMU 901838.39


Anonymous said...

Linda Nicholson recorded on a Cristofori fortepiano, not a harpsichord!

jfl said...

That's what I meant. Thanks. (Alas a little late in correcting it.)