Brighton Year-Round 2019
Christina McMaster performed Scarlatti, Satie … and Harrison Birtwistle.
Christina McMaster returns with her international standing, CDs – and with news of her pioneering (with colleagues) lying-down concerts to be given next year. Today though she segues together Scarlatti and Satie with a surprise in the middle. And you won’t guess it.
Pairing Scarlatti with a more modern composer in alternation isn’t new. Yevgeny Sudbin paired Scarlatti with Bartok in a BIS CD a decade ago. This though is different. Apart from the first monumental piece, everything was played without a break, with McMaster even playing a note or two to harmonize the next piece at one point, though mostly the divisions were observed with the lightest of dramatic pauses.
Scarlatti’s variety was explored here with alternating the first and one other sonata with otherwise rapid ones full of fireworks to offset the more lyrically edgy Satie works, and those surprises.
That first piece was a revelation. It must be one of the longest Scarlatti Sonatas, and though nominally in C major K132 moves like a minor-keyed processional full of sudden trills like interjections, almost wails. It’s a haunting, haunted piece that layers a world gauzy of access and strong on incident and ornamentation fused with the more modern style of playing Scarlatti on a concert grand. McMaster’s touch is lyrically brushed and precise, snatching away in a doted manner at some climaxes, with a precise ping. Chapel Royal owns a bloom perfectly attuned for this kind of resonance.
After this another Scarlatti, K140 in D heralded a brighter upbeat prelude to Satie’s renowned Gymnopédie No. 1, where that lyrical snatching at climaxes seems to attune both composers even further. It’s very occasional yet noticeable. The next Scarlatti in C minor K11 owns a darkness and a long-breathed contrapuntal strut yet seems ruminative at the same time.
After this the surprises. Stravinsky-esque for a 16-year-old in 1950 they might be, but who’d have thought these moody piano pieces written by a clarinettist – ‘Oockooing Bird’ and ‘Berceuse de Jeune’ – are by Harrison Birtwistle? They’re both neo-classical yet recognisably character pieces, particularly the first where the dark creeps in, and the latter more tonally neo-classic shows inner strengths Birtwistle was to develop.
After this the famous D major K1 sprung up like a firework, the D minor K64 ‘Gavotte’ is more in the style of a Suite piece than most Scarlatti Sonatas, which are self-contained worlds. Its dark perkiness is another remark on the sheer unpredictability of Scarlatti. As is the famous powerful work in E minor, K9. All these works date from Scarlatti’s 50s through 70s, and though born in 1685 the year of Handel whom he competed with, and Bach, he’s almost essaying a later Rococo style; even more remarkable in backward Spain.
In between two of Satie’s much more tenebrous, and melodically extreme Gnossiennes, Nos 1 and 4, took McMaster to an arc of expression that’s hers alone. The arabesque rolls of these works, the almost trilling nature – something McMaster realizes to uncanny hallucinated perfection in the Scarlattis – reorder our memory of how these should go.
Finally the timely meditation on Notre Dame, from Satie’s later years replete with new learning (another late re-starter like Scarlatti) ‘Ogives’ launches into Satie’s own long struggle with religion and mysticism. It’s a fittingly dark-hued work to end on, and astonishingly church bells rang two p.m. at the point Satie indicated bells. It wasn’t lost on anyone. Magnificent, and it alters the settled world of this music.