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Christopher Brodersen
Fanfare, May 2011

SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 12 (Struhal) 8.570745
SCARLATTI, D.: Keyboard Sonatas (Complete), Vol. 13 (Chu-Fang Huang) 8.572107

This is the first chance I’ve had to sample any of the titles in the ongoing Naxos Scarlatti series. When I first heard about it, the marketing strategy (if that’s what it is) of using a different pianist for each volume puzzled me. But now I see the logic: The project not only gives exposure to many young pianists who might not otherwise get a chance to record, it highlights and underscores the diversity and accessibility of Scarlatti’s music. Scarlatti’s sonatas are so varied yet so uniformly excellent that, assuming that each pianist is reasonably competent, the CDs should be worth acquiring, at least at Naxos’s bargain prices.

Gerda Struhal is Viennese; she studied both in Utrecht and Vienna and currently concertizes throughout Europe and the Far East. She is also a conductor. Her playing is relaxed and somewhat internalized—it’s what I would call the Old World approach to Scarlatti. The sound of her piano (Bösendorfer?) is warm and lovely, and has been faithfully captured by the engineers. The recital contains a representative mix of both early and late sonatas.

Chinese pianist Chu-Fang Huang studied at both Curtis and Juilliard and won first prize at the 2006 Young Concert Artists competition. She concertizes in North America, China, Japan and Australia. Her playing has more of a brilliant edge to it compared with Struhal’s, although it never strays outside the boundaries of 18th-century decorum. This is certainly reinforced by the use of a large Steinway. The recording was made in the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto; the sound is a bit more distant than that of Struhal’s but still quite satisfactory. The program is once again a mix of early and late sonatas.

You can’t go wrong with either one of these Naxos CDs, especially at the bargain-basement price…

Melinda Bargreen
MusicWeb International, January 2011

It has been nearly twelve years since Naxos began its ambitious Scarlatti series, recording the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, who composed some 555 of them. Given that only sixteen of the sonatas appear on this disc, this is a project that may occupy the Naxos group for some time to come. According to their online listings, Disc No. 1, featuring pianist Eteri Andjaparidze, appeared in January 1999; this thirteenth disc, with the Chinese pianist Chu-Fang Huang, was released in October 2010.

Naxos has chosen to present these sonatas with a series of pianists, rather than harpsichordists, and fans of the latter period approach are invited to hear how convincing Scarlatti sounds in the hands of several (mostly) up-and-coming pianists. On this recording, Chu-Fang Huang—a graduate of both the Curtis Institute and the Juilliard School—persuasively demonstrates why these baroque sonatas can work so well on the modern piano, even when the listener’s ingrained preference might be for instruments of Scarlatti’s time. Winner of first prize in the Cleveland International Piano Competition and Van Cliburn International Competition finalist, Huang is a stylish and compelling player who also knows the virtues of restraint and taste.

She has a clear affinity for these wonderfully quirky sonatas. Her crisp articulations give each note a subtle separate presence, without ever sounding choppy or percussive. The swiftly flowing melodic lines are never over-pedalled; indeed, the pedal is used sparingly and unobtrusively throughout. The specially Spanish character of the sonatas is deftly underlined in a few instances where they sound almost as if they had been written for Spanish guitar—notably portions of the Sonata K.125 in G Major.

Equally effective is the wistful, gently wandering opening of the biggest and perhaps most unusual sonatas of this set, the K.232 in E Minor. This performance sounds almost improvised, with the plangent harmonies of a repeated rising passage in sixths sounding strangely modern.

At the same time, however, Huang never distorts the music with anachronisms, romantic embellishments, or the over-emoting style with which contemporary pianists sometimes try to make a mark on these 18th-century pieces. The playing sounds honest and authentic, and the technique—never an easy “given” in these often-speedy pieces with huge intervallic leaps—is so fluid that everything sounds deceptively easy. Some of the tempi are breathtakingly fast.

The excellent two-page liner notes, which give the K (Kirkpatrick) numbers of each sonata as well as the numbers from the Longo (L) and Pestelli (P) catalogues, are by Keith Anderson, and his introduction to the sonatas includes such entertaining anecdotes as an account of the Scarlatti vs. Handel contest in Rome—in which the former was judged the better harpsichordist, while the latter was declared the superior organist.

Clearly, there are many choices for Scarlatti fans, whether they prefer to hear this music on the harpsichord or the piano. And these much-recorded sonatas have attracted the attention of pianists from Horowitz to Alexis Weissenberg, an often-overlooked stylist who produces pulse-pounding Scarlatti. But this Naxos series of fresh discoveries is enough to tempt the palate of the most jaded collector, proving again that the element of pleasant surprise is still alive and well in the recording studio.

Robert Cummings
Classical Net, December 2010

As I mentioned in my recent notice of Vol. 12 in this Naxos series (8.570745), I had previously reviewed the first eight volumes, but missed Nos. 9, 10 and 11. Each issue has featured a different artist, and Vol. 13 here continues that practice with talented Chinese pianist, Chu-Fang Huang. A Cliburn finalist and winner of the 2005 Cleveland International Piano Competition and 2006 Young Concert Artists International Auditions, she appears to have the technique and interpretive acumen to go far in her career.

Pick any sonata here and you’ll notice Ms Huang’s dynamics, tempo choices and sense for melodic flow are always tasteful and fully convincing. She seems to have put an awful lot of thought into these performances. Try her reading of the D major, K. 534 (track 9), where trills abound. Notice how she deftly infuses the trills with playfulness here and delicacy there, and how they burst with joy one moment and withdraw into intimacy the next.

The ensuing sonata, in C minor, K. 22, is given a busyness and drive that perfectly convey its energetic and mostly earnest character. Her performance of the B flat major sonata, K. 529 (track 12), is utterly thrilling both for its breathless tempos and adroitly contrasted dynamics. As the reader might notice, I’m spending more time on the sonatas from the second half of this disc, and I won’t hide my preference for them. Track 13 is another gem here, the D major, K. 491, and again Ms Huang’s performance is so skillful: melodic phrases begin mostly quietly and blossom via subtly graded dynamics into a fullness of beauty that is utterly arresting. Bravo!

The whole disc is chock full of great music and great performances, even if I favor the later tracks on it. The sound reproduction is excellent, too. Here is yet another winner in the series, then. I hope we hear more from Ms Huang. Highly recommended!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, November 2010

Regular readers will know of my antipathy to piano performances of Scarlatti, so when I tell you how much I have enjoyed the sixteen tracks of this new release, you will know it is very special. We have arrived at the thirteenth volume and are approaching the half-way point in this project to record all 555 of his known sonatas. The pleasure here comes from the playing of the young Chinese pianist, Chu-Fang Huang, who seems to have been born with Scarlatti in her lifeblood. Starting her studies in China, she moved to the Curtis Institute of Music and the Julliard School, and it has been in the States that she has established herself as a leading keyboard exponent of her generation. Never trying to hide the fact that there has to be compromises in transferring music that is so totally at home on the harpsichord, to the sounds of a concert grand, she so instinctively shapes each work in an atmosphere that has period origins. True she has chosen pieces with a high degree of percussive impetus that utilises the agility of her fingers. As a sampling point go to track 11 for the chirpy little F major sonata, K205, and hear how much infectious joy she injects. She also has the ability to retain our interest through the lengthy sonatas, the E minor, K232, and the D major, K 491, show the perception in her preparation. Sadly Naxos are allocating one disc to each pianist, for I would have looked forward with eager and excited anticipation to her next volumes, and I never thought I would write that of any pianist. Excellent sound from the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.

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