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‘The stamping of the feet, the strumming of the guitar – it’s a whole different footwork!’ When I interviewed Angela Hewitt in 2007, she was already planning her Scarlatti disc and enthusing about the Spanish influences that give his sonatas their distinctive rhythmic kick. Her Bach recordings are celebrated for their infectious dance rhythms, so it’s no surprise her approach to Scarlatti is similarly Terpsichorean, with that ‘different footwork’ contributing to the disc’s exhilarating edge. There is familiar footwork here too: in her booklet notes, she points out that K159, famous for its imitation of hunting horns, is ‘above all a tarantella – a Neapolitan dance if ever there was one’ (Scarlatti spent his later years in Spain, but was born and raised in Naples, so Italian and Spanish influences co-mingle in his music). The focus on dance, evident in Hewitt’s notes, informs her playing too, never more so than when she repeats the repeat of what she calls ‘the final wind-up section’ of the ‘demonic’ K141, ‘giving the imagined dancers one more chance to strut their stuff’. Yet even here Hewitt resists pushing the rhythmic dynamism to excess, cautioning that ‘most Scarlatti pieces are commonly taken too fast.’ And she’s attentive to the music’s other facets, from the ancient sorrows of K8 and the elegaic grandeur of K308 to the humour implicit in K427’s unexpected fortissimo chords – ‘like somebody jumping out at you from behind a door’.

Scarlatti’s music elicits similarly vivid similes from Yevgeny Sudbin, who likens K32 to ‘the bitter wail of a gypsy lament’ and reckons K99 is ‘as melancholic, lean and dessicated as a sun-baked Mediterranean landscape.’ Luckily, like Hewitt, his playing is as brilliantly evocative as his writing, though he’s a more interventionist pianist. ‘Playing Scarlati on the piano is in effect a piano transcription,’ he suggests in his booklet notes, adding, ‘here, as a pianist, one is freed from the burden of scary terms such as “historical performance practice”.’ Scary? Never mind. When the end result is this enthralling, let’s not quibble about his means, which include ‘unhistorical’ use of pedals, rubato and dynamic extremes. He provides a masterclass in contemporary pianism and, more pertinently, he finds unexpected colours and depths in these sonatas. His shading of dynamics is especially telling in reflective pieces, such as K208 and K213, helped by his extraordinarily light touch. He also shapes the gently flowing K69 with acute tenderness, and brings scampering dexterity to faster pieces like K9 and K159. He plays K141 superbly too, a more polished if less dance-oriented version than Hewitt’s, and surely too finely honed to be called ‘demonic’.

Cue Pierre Hantaï, who has argued that ‘the modern piano does rather smooth the rough edges off this repertoire, and the demonic effects you often find in it lose much of their meaning.’ His version of K141 – on Volume 1 of his ongoing Scarlatti series – certainly sounds more frenziedly demonic than either Hewitt’s or Sudbin’s, thanks to the harsh jangle of harpsichord textures. There’s nothing quite so demented on this latest volume, although K212’s cascading ruffles and K201’s frisky fandango ensure there are no lack of thrills. Hantaï excels at the kind of speedy virtuosity they require, but he also brings a burnished sensitivity to more lyrical sonatas, such as K144, K208 (compare the stately beauty of his version to Sudbin’s hushed interiority) and the epic, ten-minute K402, all enhanced by the bell-like clarity of his harpsichord (a 2004 Jonte Kif based on 18th century models).

Discussing Spanish dance styles such as flamenco, Hantaï has spoken of ‘that striking contrast between apparent calm in the upper body and, lower down, feverishness, stamping feet, in fact, a quite improbable level of hyperactivity at ground level.’ It may not be too fanciful to see an analogy with Scarlatti’s sonatas, their simple binary form a contrast to the bustling complexities of the sound-worlds they engender, like clamorous snapshots filled with all the beauty, excitement and sadness of existence. Here are three outstanding performers who bring those worlds gloriously alive, each in their own inimitable style and on their own preferred instrument. Scarlatti famously described his sonatas as ‘an ingenious jesting with art’; you won’t find any interpreters of his music more ingenious or artful than this trio.

Graham Lock Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2016 - ©Rhinegold Publishing