D Scarlatti: Keyboard Sonatas (Essercizi), K1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30

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COMPOSERS: D Scarlatti
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Keyboard Sonatas (Essercizi), K1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30
PERFORMER: Alain Planès (pianoforte)
‘A curious blend of Proust and Wilde’, the booklet notes gush of Planès in, unhappily, a foretaste of the hubris that appears to have been behind this recording. Planès has a superb technique, but why is he playing harpsichord works with a terminus ante quem of 1738 on a Viennese pianoforte of c1800? Neither the interpretation nor the booklet notes justify this move. The peculiarities of this instrument make it difficult to play, or hear, the compositional games which established Scarlatti’s fame. Scarlatti is revered for his irrational progressions, extravagant jumps and runs between registers, bitonal chords, experiments with texture and obsessively reworked themes. These are framed in a normative binary structure that quickly palls unless Scarlatti’s striking vocabulary is audible. The pianoforte’s vastly different top and bottom timbres and the action of the keys force Planès to wrestle with his instrument instead of enjoying works Scarlatti dubbed scherzi. Humour is precisely what is missing in this interpretation: over-articulation of diminished notes, micro-managing of dynamics, and punched-out mordents and trills drape Scarlatti’s spirited music in ponderous robes. Instead of liveliness there are relentless tempi which block the exposition of intimate passions. Despite occasional compelling effects with the pedal, the instrument itself is singularly unappealing, with tinny harmonics and muddy fundamentals. Planès refuses to follow the tradition in Scarlatti recordings of selecting highlights from the composer’s vast output. Again, the listener’s patience is tested, since some of these studies are simply that: pieces aiming to exercise the fingers, rather than the imagination. Some are standard modern piano repertoire, however – and in the hands of Joanna MacGregor (on a deleted Collins disc), works such as the famous ‘Cat fugue’ (K30) show us the brilliance and suaveness that make Scarlatti so attractive to pianists and harpsichordists alike. Is Planès an individualist? Stubbornly but pointlessly so. Berta Joncus