Hewitt Serves Up Scarlatti Sonatas In Detailed Style

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By Paul Robinson

Scarlatti: Sonatas (16). Angela Hewitt, piano. Hyperion CDA67613. Total Time: 76.10.

DIGITAL REVIEW –  When Martha Argerich made a rare appearance in Montreal in February, she played Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in D minor, Kk. 141, as an encore. It was wonderful, to say the least. Shortly after viewing this live broadcast by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal on Medici TV, I received Angela Hewitt’s new all-Scarlatti CD, which includes a rendering of Kk. 141 every bit as compelling as the Argerich live performance. In the famous mandolin-inspired repeated-note passages, Hewitt’s playing is as flawless as Argerich’s. Overall, she plays Scarlatti with style and subtlety, putting her in very distinguished company indeed. In fact, this new CD by Hewitt is a virtual master class from beginning to end.

Scarlatti (1685-1757) was born the same year as Bach and Handel, and his legacy, in its own way, is no less formidable than theirs. Born in Naples, Scarlatti worked for most of his career in Portugal and Spain, spending the last 25 years of his life in Madrid as music master to Princess Maria Barbara, later Queen of Spain. Compared to Bach and Handel, he had a modest career, and only after his death did his singular achievements come to be appreciated. In his 555 keyboard sonatas – only a few of them more than about five minutes long – he created magical textures and rhythms seldom previously heard in harpsichord music.

Pianist Angela Hewitt (Bernd Eberle)While most of Scarlatti’s music was written for the harpsichord and has been treasured by every serious harpsichordist since Landowska, pianists also have taken to his music. Great artists spanning three generations, from Gieseking, Horowitz, and Michelangeli to Argerich, Schiff, and Tharaud, have embraced his sonatas.

Hewitt first made her mark playing the music of Bach in the 1985 Toronto International Bach Competition, going on to become one of the world’s most authoritative Bach players. She has now immersed herself in Scarlatti’s music with the same scholarly thoroughness and detailed preparation she devoted to Bach, and the results are equally insightful.

Consider her performance of the Sonata in D major, Kk. 430. The music suggests to me a prancing horse, a characteristic Hewitt brings out to perfection, mainly by holding back the tempo. Then there is the rather slow and melancholy Sonata in G minor, Kk. 8, featuring constant dotted figures. What really got my attention in this performance was the way Hewitt executed the remarkable arpeggiated chords at the end of each of the two sections of the piece. These are clearly “guitar” chords, and it is amazing how Hewitt can make her piano sound so much like that instrument.

Among the many delights of this CD are Hewitt’s notes on each of the sonatas, which provide the listener with ideal introductions to these wonderful pieces. In her description of Sonata in D major, Kk. 140, for example, she tells about playing this music on the organ, about how fantastic it sounded, and then draws attention to the unusual pauses and the echo of the opening fanfare in a remote key. She points out how difficult this piece is to play with its “treacherous double sixths and huge hand-crossing leaps” and finally invites us to “imagine some rather elegant cavalry exercises taking place in the palace courtyard where Scarlatti was teaching his pupil, Princess Maria Barbara.” These are enlightening comments about a truly great four-minute masterpiece.

For Something More…

Martha Argerich gave a hair-raising performance of Kk. 141 at the Concertgebouw in 1979 (EMI 56975), taking a tempo almost twice as fast as Hewitt’s, an amazing feat that may tell us more about Argerich than Scarlatti – at least about the young Argerich. In Montreal earlier this year, Argerich’s tempo was very similar to Hewitt’s. Listeners wanting to learn more about Scarlatti should consider tracking down three excellent books: Ralph Kirkpatrick’s classic, Domenico Scarlatti (Princeton U.P., 1953); Roberto Pagano’s Two Lives (Pendragon Press, 2006), about both Alessandro Scarlatti and his son Domenico; and W. Dean Sutcliffe’s The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth Century Musical Style (Cambridge Books, 2008).

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.

 

Date posted: April 27, 2016

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