Pianist Lucas Debargue‘s new recording of sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti fills four CDs. Yet these 52 works are only a small fraction of the Italian composer’s enormous keyboard output, which totals 555 sonatas. Debargue plays them on the piano, where they’re most often heard today, rather than on a harpsichord, for which they were composed.
In the decades since Vladimir Horowitz’s semi-Romantic Scarlatti interpretations, many pianists have helped further popularize these astoundingly inventive and ahead-of-their-time works. Minimally structured, dreamy, rule-breaking yet easy to digest and often sweet, they work as brilliantly at the piano as does the keyboard music of Scarlatti’s exact contemporary J.S. Bach.
There’s a touch of nasality to the middle and low registers of the Bösendorfer piano Debargue plays here. But whether this is the piano itself or an artifact of choices made in the recording studio, it actually helps place us closer to the harpsichord tradition. So does the pianist’s eschewing of the sustain pedal. His main Scarlatti reference point, he states in the liner notes, was Scott Rose’s harpsichord recordings.
You can hear that in the crisp technique Debargue applies, a sensitivity that actually elevates the music’s emotionality. He puts his own stamp on these pieces, employing subtle dynamics and richly realized ornamentation, as well as a fine sense of space, which includes occasionally exaggerated pauses. He conveys a baroque flavor that feels true to what I imagine was Scarlatti’s intent. He takes all the repeats, too – and how can you not?
Debargue also presents pairings (his own) of sonatas in the same key, aiming to add a dimension to our appreciation of the composer’s vast imagination. It’s instructive to hear two pieces in the same key and thus theoretically with a similar “flavor” yet nothing alike, each with its own palette of moods, chord changes, and technical effects.
He brings out a stunning array of emotions and effects. The descending tick-tock of a clock in K. 404 contrasts with the elastic tempos of K. 343 and of K. 115, the latter with its spooky trilled interlude. Uncertainty and assertiveness alternate in the same piece in K. 447. He finds drama in the haunting repeated notes of K. 211, the fury of K. 27, the birdsong of K. 491, the dizzying contrasts of K. 414, the nimble high spirits of K. 535, and the ineffable minor-key beauty of K. 462. In some pieces he makes interpretive choices that are different from anything I’ve heard before.
Debargue is notably affecting on the slower, ruminative sonatas, like K. 32 which closes Disc 2, and the meditative K. 69 in F minor whose somber wanderings end with a comforting major chord. Other high points include the panicked fury of K. 545 and one of my absolute favorites, the beautiful K. 474 in the mellow key of E-flat major.
Any collection this big is likely to include some pieces that are unfamiliar to just about any listener – that’s how many riches there are in the Scarlatti trove. The set does include some commonly played favorites, but also quite a few sonatas I hadn’t heard before. And with 500 to go, any time Lucas Debargue wants to return to Scarlatti he’s more than welcome in my speakers.
This superb four-CD box is available now.
A personal note: I hope next time Debargue records Scarlatti he includes the brilliant “Cat Fugue” (K. 30), built on six seemingly random notes purportedly stepped on one day by the composer’s cat. It’s one of those great little stories that makes music history interesting, especially with a composer about whom we know relatively little.