John McCabe: Scarlatti / Clementi Sonatas

review mccabe x1 cong

An album it’s hard to say much about: John McCabe plays some great piano pieces very well. The music was recorded in 1981. McCabe was approached by Ted Perry, of Hyperion, who suggested some Scarlatti sonatas. McCabe wanted to record sonatas by Clementi, in his view an unjustifiably neglected composer, whereas many fine pianists were playing Scarlatti, “and his heart was always in supporting neglected works by great composers,” according to the sleeve notes, written by his widow Monica.

The upshot was two LPs, one for each of the composers, recorded over three days in April 1981, the middle day of which was the pianist’s 42nd birthday.

While McCabe plays the often complex pieces well, it’s got a live feel to it. McCabe felt that, given freedom from interruptions, if a pianist couldn’t record a work in three takes, he or she probably shouldn’t be recording it.

Mrs McCabe recalls the recording being pressured — it was recorded in London and they had to keep nipping out to move their cars, the producer collecting a couple of parking tickets. The pianist of course was left to play; Mrs McCabe says his three-takes rule led to a “spontaneity and freshness” and even though she can tell you of a “less-than-perfectly executed mordent”, or less than smoothly articulated run, the listener probably won’t notice. Although there are, as Mrs McCabe says, a lot of notes and the playing is often fast, there’s also a lot of silence, reminding us of Glenn Gould’s most famous recording. It’s very calming.

Giuseppe Scarlatti was contemporary of Handel and JS Bach and a prolific composer. Muzio Clementi was Italian-born but English; in 1781, he competed in a piano competition with Mozart.

This is out now on Divine Art, DDA 21231.


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