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Italian pianist Carlo Grante brings lucidity and equilibrium to the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Benjamin Ivry reports

In July, the Italian pianist Carlo Grante completed a decade-long, heroic traversal of the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti: nearly 600 works on almost three dozen CDs for the American label Music & Arts. This achievement coincides with the gradual understanding among piano lovers that Scarlatti’s sonatas are not merely amuse-bouches to be sprinkled sparingly at the start of recitals while punters find their seats and reach the level of attention needed for more serious works. Through efforts by generations of pianists, harpsichordists and musicologists, Scarlatti is now treasured as a composer of intensity, concentration and unsurpassed variety.

Grante was born in 1960 in L’Aquila, the capital city of the Abruzzo region in central Italy, and has an extensive track record of performing and recording, as well as redoubtable keyboard skills to meet the challenges of Scarlatti’s style. Given Scarlatti’s wide-ranging cultural influences, from Spanish and Portuguese dances to his own native melodies, it may be helpful that Grante has championed a United Nations of composers, including Vilnius-born Leopold Godowsky, America’s George Flynn, Scotland’s Alistair Hinton, and England’s Michael Finnissy and Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.

Grante’s studies with Sergio Perticaroli (1930-2019), an interpreter of poetic poignancy, have perhaps given him the necessary sense of balance in his approach to Scarlatti. Another brilliant mentor was the level-headed Czech pianist Rudolf Firkušný (1912-1994), a master of contemporary music, with whom he worked at the Juilliard School. In London, Grante was coached by Alice Kezeradze (1937-1996), the late wife and onetime instructor of Ivo Pogorelich.

Whatever his sources of inspiration, Grante is undaunted by the most taxing technical demands, maintaining a blithe expressivity that is quite different from his compatriot, the coolly grand-seigneurial Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. In playfulness, Grante is closer to Clara Haskil’s understanding of Scarlatti, highly characterised and aware of an audience.

Clarity is a byword of Grante’s playing on the Bösendorfer Imperial. He uses little pedalling, although in the Sonata in A minor Kk109 there is suddenly a trifle more pedal, possibly to add atmospheric resonance. In the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Fanfare magazine, Grante told an interviewer that he chose to record the cycle on a Bösendorfer because that instrument’s typical ‘timbre differentiation between registers … soprano, tenor, bass’, suited Scarlatti’s ‘sharp contrasts between complexity and simplicity.’

Such nuances are essential in a composer whose works, as the American musicologist Joel Sheveloffnoted, contain an ‘abundance of tiny, special details’. Ever-alert to narrative minutiae, Grante preserves a conversational sense, as in the Sonata in D major Kk333, with sustained internal dialogues achieved through lyrical continuity and a singing line, bringing out Scarlatti’s vocal inspiration.

The Sonata in D major Kk346 is presented with an artistry that conceals art, as even the most challenging passages are played with fluent ease. The Sonata in C major Kk333, meanwhile, emphasises lyrical grace rather than sheer dazzle, or the half-confetti, half-fireworks that a showier pianist might have stressed. Grante expresses these sonatas as internal monologues rather than extrovert crowd-pleasers.

Preferring equilibrium and homogeneity to dramatic contrast, Grante does not attempt to rival breathtaking performances of selected Scarlatti sonatas by Béla Bartók, Vladimir Horowitz or Murray Perahia. Nor is his approach like the predominantly intellectual conception of Glenn Gould, who played Scarlatti crisply, as if attempting to reproduce the qualities of a fine, dry sherry.

Those seeking a complete Scarlatti on harpsichord might opt for the dignified, somehow northern interpretation of Pieter-Jan Belder (Brilliant) which, while accomplished, makes Scarlatti’s music sound as if it had been written by Gluck. Among fellow pianists, Grante’s compatriot the young star Federico Colli’s recently launched Scarlatti sonata series (Chandos) contrasts vivacity with introspection in vivid and compulsive performances. The German pianist Christoph Ullrich’s ongoing cycle (Tacet) sounds a trifle bland and monochromatic, so far at least. Another complete Scarlatti series (Naxos) assigns individual CDs to different pianists, among whom Konstantin Scherbakov’s lucid, fluent readings are especially rewarding.

If a further solo sonata cycle were to be hazarded, then the American pianist Claire Huangci’s vital, brainy interpretations might make her a good candidate for what Grante’s booklet notes describe as ‘storm[ing] the mighty mountain’.

In his own liner notes for a pioneering recording of 60 Scarlatti sonatas, the American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick described these works as ranging ‘from the courtly to the savage, from a well-nigh saccharine urbanity to an acrid violence… moments of meditative melancholy are at times overwhelmed by a surge of extrovert operatic passion.’

Perhaps to avoid what might sound over-the-top today on the piano, Grante opts for a far more balanced equanimity. Also eschewed are some of Kirkpatrick’s scholarly vagaries, from riskily dating works for which no autograph manuscripts survive, to other vehement dicta by ‘the Big K’, as Grante amusingly refers to Kirkpatrick.

Taken as a whole, these performances are akin to enjoying the companionship of a mature, even-tempered friend. Th ere may not be thunderstorms or other dazzling cataclysms, but the discourse wears exceedingly well over the long run. As it turns out, Grante has the emotional temperament as well as keyboard skills and taste to make this an ideal project for him.

As we know from the flexibility, relaxation, and limpidity of Dinu Lipatti in Scarlatti’s Pastorale Sonata in D minor, results are achieved as much by what interpreters choose not to do, as by their positive performance choices. With Grante, aside from an overall impression of lucidity, there is also a sense of being a worthy artistic heir to the recordings made by Christian Zacharias during the late 1970s.

Benjamin Ivry Read the full review on Agora Classica

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