"Why can't all piano records be as good as this?", Gramophone's reviewer asks himself as he sets out to describe the many treasures, hidden and otherwise, of this remarkable achievement. Why, indeed. Which, of course, calls forth the question: shouldn't this repertoire be performed on that most individual and idiosyncratic of instruments, the harpsichord, for which it was originally conceived?
I am a convinced authenticist--I can no longer bring myself to listen to Baroque (or earlier) music that is not performed on period instruments: somehow it just doesn't sound right. And yet I am a great admirer of Perahia's accomplishments: it is not everyday that one finds such faultless technique, such command of shades and nuances, such surprising insights, such reserved, yet overwhelming lyricism, such versatility of touch--so apparent, for instance, in his masterly presentation of Chopin's Piano Works (1994, strongly recommended). So it was with mixed feelings, and equipped with the necessary dose of scepticism, that I first played this CD.
Well, it is unique. Everything one has learned to expect from Perahia is here; and, if possible, even more. He does not pretend that this is piano music; but by means of sheer artistry he succeeds in making wonderful piano music out of it. This is not to say that the more distinctive features of harpsichord music are lost on him: he is brilliant, crisp, and fast enough when needed. Simply, instead of merely mimicking the sound and feel of the harpsichord (a risky and usually unrewarding venture), he tries to make sense of these scores from a pianist's point of view. It seems to me that this approach reveals more than it conceals: for instance, the Harmonious Blacksmith Variations (Suite N. 5 in E Major, HWV 430) quite unexpectedly acquire a softly hypnotic ring which I found very appealing. The virtuosity is astounding, so second-nature that it almost fails to impress. The sound is excellent. (Two or three of the Scarlatti tracks were perhaps recorded at a slightly lower volume than the rest--but I might be wrong.)
Handel (1685-1759) and Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) were contemporaries. Before heading off for what would become their adoptive countries (England and Portugal, respectively), the two player-composers even met twice, the first time in Venice, and then in Rome, where a trial of skill was held (Scarlatti turned out to be perhaps the better harpsichordist, while Handel excelled at the organ). The Handel pieces were all composed in Germany or in Italy, and are therefore early, pre-England works (before 1718), while the pieces by Scarlatti date from the 1730s, his Portuguese period. The tracks were recorded in 1996 in Vienna and Neumarkt, Germany. The booklet is mildly enlightening.