Monday, May 26, 2008

A 1/20th Full Cup

Scarlatti: Sonatas
Mikhail Pletnev, piano
Virgin Classics, 7243 5 61961 2 4 (2 CDs)


As promised, here we have a double CD set of Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev playing 31 Scarlatti sonatas, providing us with a nice contrast to the Scott Ross harpsichord versions reviewed below. As I mentioned in that post, the suitability of the piano for all 555 of Scarlatti's sonatas is questioned, at least by some. And I'm certainly not knowledgeable enough to clear the air on these matters. But between the Hungarian Andras Schiff, Horowitz and now Pletnev, I must have 50 or more of the sonatas recorded on modern grand piano, and the pieces seem certainly not worse for wear for this instrument choice.

Which is not to say there is no difference. None of these artists seeks to make their piano sound like something other than what it is. Pletnev is of the first order of pianists, a top shelf technician with a broad repertoire. He uses his instrument's full resources to bring us these pieces, taking advantage of the piano's great dynamic range, clarity and expressive potential to shape lines and emphasize contrapuntal interplay, and indeed to differentiate emotionally between pieces. Some pieces, like K. #s 24, 386, 141 and 113 pass at a perilously fast pace; not gratuitously fast, but a pace which requires deft skill (and the piano's perfected double-escapement action) to pull off. Other pieces are presented more luxuriously, though never self-indulgently. Pletnev has chosen a number of more familiar sonatas (K. #s 27, 380, 96, the hauntingly beautiful K.87--a favorite of Horowitz's) mixed in with the inevitably lesser-known numbers.

It makes for a satisfying recital, and a great summary of Scarlatti on piano. It doesn't substitute for these pieces on their intended instrument, but Scarlatti, like Bach, translates very well to other media. I think a strong argument can be made that the piano is the dominant keyboard instrument of our times (harpsichords having become quite esoteric), and we exclude repertoire from it to our own detriment. Certainly I'd rather have Scarlatti's work become better known via the piano than not to hear him at all.

The recording, from 1995, is fairly close, natural and quiet.

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