Another week of lockdown completed and as the psychological impacts begin to bite it’s perhaps a good idea on this gloomy Saturday morning to choose something from the review pile to lift the spirits and quicken the pulse. One word on the spine of the top disc promises to fulfil the brief: Scarlatti. Another clinches the gig: Colli- Federico of that ilk to be precise. I was fortunate indeed to review this effervescent Italian’s last outing (a Bach recital) and quite apart from being bowled over by his dynamic yet soulful pianism I discovered he writes a perceptive programme note, too. In the case of his new disc, his thoughts are encapsulated in the enigmatic Chandos cover portrait in which the performer, resplendent in white tails and a crimson shirt poses in front of a mirror whereby his attire is miraculously transformed. This feeds into the album ‘concept’ which revolves around the two sonatas K 63 in G and K 64 in D minor. Colli reminds us that Scarlatti conceived this dyad as a pair.
His essay begins with a consideration of the omnipresence of ‘smoothness’ in everyday life, as in, say, the quite ‘effortless’ constitution of an iPhone, or the surface of a Jeff Koons’ sculpture. He muses on the consequent exclusion of ‘rough’ as (please forgive what is almost certainly an oversimplification on my part) epitomising the acceptance of incompleteness as an unfortunate modus vivendi for the 21st century, and proposes that Scarlatti was sufficiently in tune with his inner yin and yang to have produced a corpus of five hundred and fifty-odd sonatas which can also be matched up by performers (or even listeners) to illustrate the duality of this composer -his shadow and light, his joy and melancholy, his ‘Florestan and Eusebius’ (or equivalents). Colli has in this way curated his own sequence of ‘opposing’ pairs of sonatas.
Listening to the blueprint pair then, it is perhaps no coincidence that both K 63 and K 64 on this disc last exactly 124 seconds. Both are marked Allegro; the G major K 63 is labelled a capriccio, whereas the D minor is described, rather misleadingly as a gavota. Where the first swings with lithe elegance and arched eyebrows notwithstanding its tart central modulations, the second bristles with a kind of pent-up agitation. Colli plays up its Iberian strummings deliciously. K 64 seems to start from broadly the same point as its predecessor only to end up somewhere else entirely.
The initial pair of sonatas on the disc (K 144 and K 427) share a key (G major). The first is stately and unassumingly ornate. Colli’s coloration and pacing are immaculate, his reading buys the listener time to absorb and savour it. The Chandos recording is inevitably managed with great skill, the sound consistently immediate and natural throughout the album. The five minutes of K 144 are replete with the features of Colli’s thoughtful (as opposed to mannered) approach. K 427 defies detailed analysis; after three seconds one gives up trying and simply enjoys the thing for what it is – a thrilling white knuckle ride. The torrents of rapid-fire notes are delivered with extraordinary bite and clarity; in line with Colli’s written words they emerge cleanly rather than smoothly, and utterly without blandness. K 25 and K 318 are in F sharp minor and major respectively. The former is rather toccata-like, certain of its destination and its means of traction; each phrase is tellingly layered to minimise or maximise the narrative flow whilst Colli’s nimble finger work is an utter delight. The F major sonata is almost tentative by comparison, unfolding like an improvisation. There’s palpable freedom and fantasy in the Italian’s reading of this emotionally ambiguous piece.
Both of the following pieces are distillations of almost Webernian concentration. The 52 seconds of K 431 in G comprises contrasting pairs of short and long sentences; its C minor companion K 40 is a Minuet which lasts twice as long but is every bit as compressed as its sibling. Its brief figures are carefully demarcated by Colli who invests them with a twist of modernity which seems surprisingly apt. This also links neatly with the next item; his reading of the strange Cat’s Fugue in G minor, K 30, so called because one could well imagine its rather odd ‘theme’ being pawed out by some Baroque ancestor of Thomas O’Malley. The clarity and articulation of each line is positively Gouldian; the coloration and passion injected by Colli are his own, however. Its pairing is K 35, also in G minor; this is contrastingly fluent and reassuringly regular in this young player’s hands.
Next up are the languorous F minor sonata K 466 which is paired with the powerhouse, obsessive K 531 in E major. The former’s relatively epic duration (just shy of ten minutes) belies its remarkable simplicity. It’s one of those amazing sonatas where Scarlatti literally suspends time by arriving at the same established landmark via a series of simultaneously familiar yet increasingly strange circuits. Colli’s account is every bit as meditative and touching as Yevgeny Sudbin’s on his justly acclaimed BIS debut disc (review), It arguably evolves with a tad more humility, although I revere both of the Russian’s Scarlatti discs. K 531 is more open-hearted and vernal, a bracing evening stroll, with some rather strident caesuras, perhaps to take in the landscape.
The tentative, finely spun lyricism in the first half of the A major sonata K 279 anticipates the spirit of K 466 but realises this more mercurially; by its conclusion it has morphed into a more restless and wrong-footing enterprise. Colli realises its dynamic and emotional contrasts seamlessly. Even odder is K 118 in D major. W Dean Sutcliffe’s pertinent booklet guide to these pieces points out the strange instruction Non presto at its outset, perhaps implying potential disaster for those pianists who take it at too swift a lick; there’s little chance Colli will fall for that. He’s more than happy to let Scarlatti do the talking.
The final pairing links the shimmering, meditative sonata in B minor, K 87 with the (probably spurious) work in C major K 95. Again there is absolutely nothing histrionic or superfluous in Colli’s attentive, humane playing of the longer B minor work. This is priceless balm for the small hours, for when one is left to reflect on anxieties both cosmic and personal. Pretty as it seemed at mid-day, at two in the morning the piece and this player pierce one’s heart and steal one’s breath. It justifies the purchase of the album on its own. K 95 is more enigmatic, not jolly per se but sufficient to enable those of us who wake to see the sun come up each morning to count our blessings.
Colli’s imaginative presentation of this selection of Scarlatti’s endlessly life-affirming sonatas truly works, and merits focus and contemplation on the part of the attentive listener. I have been absorbed and profoundly moved by this disc; while that may have something to do with the current zeitgeist perhaps we should at least be grateful for the opportunity for our responses to be sharpened; to face up to the looming shadows even as we acknowledge the light.
1. K 144 in G major [5:28]
2. K 427 in G major [2:04]
3. K 25 in F sharp minor [3:07]
4. K 318 in F sharp major [6:24]
5. K 431 in G major [0:52]
6. K40 in C minor [1:35]
7. K30 in G minor Cat’s Fugue [2:27]
8. K 35 in G minor [2:31]
9. K466 in F minor [9:47]
10. K 531 in E major [3:55]
11. K 63 in G major [2:04]
12. K 64 in D minor [2:04]
13. K 279 in A major [5:46]
14. K 118 in D major [4:49]
15. K 87 in B minor [7:08]
16. K 95 in C major [1:57]
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