Norman Lebrecht’s CD of the Week – Scarlatti Illuminated
Domenico Scarlatti was born in 1685 and overshadowed by two giants who shared his birthday year, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel. Worse luck, instead of staying home in Naples and writing operas for rich traders as his father did, Domenico veered off to the relative obscurity of Portugal and Spain where, working for the royal families, he turned out exactly 555 solo sonatas for the harpsichord.
This was not a good career move. Excess, in music, is a natural deterrent. The public will never tolerate 555 of anything, so it is little short of a miracle that some music by Scarlatti junior was taken up by 19th and 20th century virtuosi, adapted for the heavier sonorities of the grand piano and often used as a first encore to help the audience settle down after the big showpiece.
Two famous soloists, Carl Tausig and Ignaz Friedman, made modern transcriptions of Scarlatti pieces; and Vladimir Horowitz was prone to slip Scarlatti into the gap between Scriabin and Prokofiev. What this album does, as none before, is give us the chance to hear both baroque and romantic-style Scarlatti, played side-by-side on a concert grand. It’s quite a ride.
At 24 years old, Joseph Moog knows no fear. He takes the virtuosic slaloms eyes wide open and then reins back without brakes for the onset of baroque curlicues. I have a feeling we’re going to hear much more of Moog. German born, he has an original turn of mind and an impressive technique. The music is never less than unexpected, with an occasional wistful quirk that hints at might-have-beens. Contrary to the usual rules, this album could be a career-making release.
Three fine cellists
An obscure sonata by a 19 year-old Kurt Weill, remarkably mature, leads into the equally unplayed opus 1 by Hans Pfitzner and the well-known romantic sonata of Samuel Barber. The dialogue between Viersen and her pianist Silke Avenhaus is quiet, almost gossipy, making you want to listen all the more closely for nuance.
Pairing the Barber cello concerto with his sonata may have seemed a brilliant programming idea, but it’s too much of a good thing. The Swiss cellist plays a notably rich-sounding Guarnerius, too rich for this austere rep. Katherine Stott accompanies the sonata, Andrew Litton conducts the concerto. Even with an added Adagio for strings, the album offers less than an hour of music.
Danish and brave, Kullberg plays three concertos by living Nordic composers – Per Norgard, Arne Nordheim and Kaija Saariaho. Nordheim’s in a single movement, is easiest to grasp; the other two require deep concentration. Kullberg plays with blithe satisfaction, as if they were Haydn. The New Music Orchestra are conducted by Szymon Bywalec.
Norman Lebrecht is a regular presenter on BBC Radio 3 and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other publications. He has written 12 books about music, the most recent being Why Mahler? He hosts the blog Slipped Disc.