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As he did for many piano-lovers, Federico Colli first came to my attention when he appeared as a finalist at the Leeds International Piano Competition, which he went on to win in 2012. Since then he has established a successful performing career and has an exclusive recording deal with the Chandos label.
I have to confess that in 2012, Colli was not my favourite to win; nor was I enamoured with his Bach recording when I caught up with it last year. However, seeing glowing reviews for his second CD of Scarlatti Sonatas elsewhere I took the plunge. And how glad I am, because it is stunning!
So what makes this recording special? Let’s find out…
Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard music
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I wasn’t an early convert to the keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti either.
As a child, the fascinating stories of the great composers’ lives were often the hook that initially pulled me to their music. But Scarlatti is a composer about whom we know surprisingly little.
As W. Dean Sutcliffe notes in his booklet note to this release,
“Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) occupies a most unusual position in musical history. For a start, there is a relative lack of information on this most distinctive of composers. No autographs of the keyboard sonatas survive, and we have no real knowledge of the order in which the roughly 555 Sonatas were written. Further, only a single letter survives from the composer’s hand, and there is little other firm evidence as to what Scarlatti’s real-life personality was like – although many have imagined one on the basis of the strong artistic character that emerges from the sonatas.”
My first memorable encounter with that “strong artistic character” was when, as a University student, I took up playing the harpsichord. I soon became intoxicated with the flamboyantly virtuosic flourishes, juxtaposed as they are with expressive lyricism and hints of Iberian influence, which all combine to deliver an immediately distinctive cocktail. Neither obviously belonging to the Baroque or Classical style, nor overtly forming a logical bridge between the two, Scarlatti’s keyboard Sonatas are singularly unique.
While many of these single-movement Sonatas are structurally developed around two highly contrasted musical ideas, further polarity is introduced by the pairing of two Sonatas performed together, each illuminating the other. The contemporaneous publications of the works generally paired them according to tonal centre, but for this latest disc Colli chooses his own pairs, as he explains in this short promotional film:
Colli’s eight pairs that fill this generous disc are:
- Sonata KK.144 in G major, Cantabile
- Sonata KK.427 in G major, Presto, quanta sia possibile
- Sonata KK.25 in F sharp minor, Allegro
- Sonata KK.318 in F sharp major, Andante
- Sonata KK.431 in G major, Allegro
- Sonata KK.40 in C minor, Minuetto, Moderato
- Sonata KK.30 in G minor “Cat’s Fugue”, Fuga, Moderato
- Sonata KK.35 in G minor, Allegro
- Sonata KK.466 in F minor, Andante moderato
- Sonata KK.531 in E major, Allegro
- Sonata KK.63 in G major, Capriccio, Allegro
- Sonata KK.64 in D minor, Gavota, Allegro
- Sonata KK.279 in A major, Andante
- Sonata KK.118 in D major, non presto
- Sonata KK.87 in B minor
- Sonata KK.95 in C major, Vivace
Not only do we know little of the composer, his personality or the origin to these Sonatas; our understanding of how to interpret them, and the clean, blank scores we are presented with make them particularly open to reinvention by today’s pianists. Are there any other core works which so artfully hold up a canvas on which the performer can paint her or his own character?
Some pianists opt for purism and clarity, while others more overtly reinvent them for the modern piano. Colli belongs firmly to the second group, his muscular no-holds-barred approach plain in his version of the well-loved “Cat’s Fugue” shown here:
This isn’t to say that Colli eschews an awareness of period sensibilities and authenticity; on the contrary, his genius in this music is to combine the modern virtuoso with the Baroque one, revelling in Scarlatti’s penchant for contrasting extrovert flair with a delicious poise that’s often shot through with melancholy.
As for convincing period touches, Colli proves himself not only an adept master of suitably elegant and controlled ornamentation, but also brings a mercurial hint of extemporisation, adding his personal twist with, for example, a cosmopolitan introduction of notes inégales in the repeats of the well-worn C minor Sonata KK.40.
In short, Colli succeeds in this repertoire as few have previously managed. Here, immediate and fresh, is Scarlatti’s voice as I’ve not heard him before, but as I would like to hear him from now on!
Produced by Jonathan Cooper, with assistance from engineer Cheryl Jessop, there is a full and rounded sound to the recording that seems perfectly judged and tastefully preserves Colli’s significant dynamic range.
Recorded at Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, Colli plays a Steinway Model D prepared by Jon Pearce.
The generous CD booklet includes an in-depth essay and analysis of the music by W. Dean Sutcliffe, as well as a more reflective piece written by Colli himself. Together these add considerably to our understanding and appreciation of this music.
In the right hands, the effervescent charm and humanity of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard Sonatas can truly sparkle; how joyous that Federico Colli’s are the right hands!
Any previous reservations I had about either the composer or pianist are put to bed by the alchemical reaction of the two here. The highly individual approach, charisma and enthusiasm that marks Colli’s pianism has found its perfect expression in the music of Domenico Scarlatti.
And it is this fusion which has given birth to one of the most exciting piano discs of the year. Whether or not you were already a fan of Scarlatti’s Sonatas, you owe it to yourself to bathe in the wonders of this magnificent recording. Bravo!
Scarlatti Sonatas Vol.1 is also available here, and equally enjoyable!
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