Korstick’s Lively Scarlatti

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D. SCARLATTI: Keyboard Sonatas: in E, K. 380; in D min., K. 9; in D min., K. 1; in G min., K. 8; in G min., K. 8a; in C min., K. 11; in E, K. 20; in B min., K. 27; in D, K. 29; in D min., K. 32; in D, K. 33; in B min., K. 87; in A, K. 113; in D, K. 118; in D, K. 119; in C, K. 132; in E, K. 135; in G, K. 146; in E, K. 162; in A, K. 208; in F min., K. 239; in C# min., K. 247; in A, K. 322; in G. K. 427; in G min., K. 450; in G. K. 454; in C, K. 460; in F min., K. 466; in F min., K. 481; in D, K. 491; in D, K. 492; in C, K. 502; in C, K. 514; in E, K. 531; in A min., K. 532; in C, K. 159; in D min., K. 141 / Michael Korstick, pno / CPO 555 473-2

Here’s something entirely different for Michael Korstick, whose career has largely centered around Beethoven, Debussy, Ginastera and a few of the late Romantics, a 2-CD set of Baroque sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti, scheduled for release on November 9.

I’ve been enamored of Scarlatti’s sonatas, which he modestly described as “exercises,” ever since I heard Wanda Landowska’s 1940 recordings of 41 of them back in the early 1970s when they were reissued on a 2-LP Seraphim set. The music has something that a great deal of Baroque music does not, and that is wit, along with something else. My late friend Ralph Berton put it best: “All of those sonatas are like little stories he tells.” And so they do. As historian Charles Burney put it, “Scarlatti imitated the melodies of songs which were sung by wagoners, mule drivers, and ordinary people,” yet the music isn’t as easy to play as it sounds. To quote from the liner notes:

Among the hallmarks of Scarlatti’s keyboard techniques are the frequent crossing of the hands, often at a very quick speed (K29, K113), rapid salvos of repeated notes (K141 being the most famous example), and extremely fast runs in thirds. An effect Scarlatti was very fond of is the sudden appearance of an unrelated new key without any preparation, sometimes producing an almost impressionist effect as in the Sonata in E, K531, at others creating almost shocking moments such as those in the Sonata in C, K460.

In addition I can say this, that several of these sonatas sound as if they are being played by two pianists, not so much at separate instruments but two players at one keyboard.

Being a pianist weaned on Romantic and early modern composers, Korstick does not take a historically-informed approach to this music. He plays them on his regular Steinway and uses a great deal of gradation in dynamics (volume) in each sonata, something that was extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve on keyboards of Scarlatti’s time, yet a comparison with Landowska’s performances is apt because he does capture their charm. Just look at the big smile Korstick has on his face on the album cover. It’s not surprising. In addition to Landowska and a bunch of modern pianists, there are also recordings of various Scarlatti sonatas by Zuzana Růžičková, Igor Kipnis, Dinu Lipatti, Robert Casadesus, José Iturbi, Clara Haskil, György Cziffra, Raymond Lewenthal, Idíl Biret, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Ton Koopman and, of all people, Béla Bartók. There’s even a Scarlatti sonata on an album called Music for Dog Lovers (the one in D minor, K.9). Everyone loves Scarlatti!

Since he wrote some 550 of these pieces, which of course are relatively short, one-movement works that bear no resemblance to the piano sonata as it evolved from Mozart and Haydn on forward, the ones chosen for selection in any given album, unless you are committed to recording all of them (I think only Christoph Ullrich on Tacet, Carlo Grante on Music & Arts and a slew of pianists on Naxos have attempted this), is always a matter of personal choice. Both Landowska and Korstick chose well, though not all of them are duplicated between the two albums. In his skilled hands, as in hers, the music not only sings but dances in a way that only Italian music can; as Toscanini said of Rossini, the music has “sunshine” in it, and that is the overriding quality one notices in these performances. Indeed, it may be the “sunniest” album that Korstick has yet recorded. Just listen to the way he rips through the Sonata in D, K. 29, for one example among many. The pianist has also programmed the sonatas well, alternating the fast and slow ones as well as different keys, though as mentioned earlier Scarlatti loved to subvert his listeners by often changing key, or even go from major to minor or vice-versa in the middle of a sonata.

I don’t know if all or most of these were recorded in one or two marathon sessions, but it sure sounds like it. The whole album glows and sparkles with a consistent energy, and if you listen carefully you’ll hear little details that you may not have noticed before though Korstick does not exaggerate anything. The Sonata in D, K. 118 is a perfect example. Everything is lightly chiseled and in its place, yet there’s still a smile in the music. In the slower sonatas, Korstick elicits real feeling from the music, almost as if he had written it himself. Sometimes he subtly cajoles the music from the keyboard; at other times, it sounds as if he’s playing a big harp or a guitar, rippling his fingers over the strings.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to this set is that it sounds as if Korstick were sitting at home, playing these pieces simply for his own enjoyment—except that we happen to be eavesdropping. Absolutely wonderful recordings, highly recommended.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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