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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
The Complete Keyboard Sonatas (Kk Nos 1-555)

Scott Ross (harpsichord)
Recorded at various locations in France, 1984-1985 DDD
WARNER CLASSICS 2564 62092-2 [34 CDs - approx. 34 hours, 36 minutes]


In general terms, there can be little doubt that this project is one of the most remarkable recordings ever undertaken. The sheer scale of the undertaking makes the Decca Ring look like a picnic by comparison. It was conceived to celebrate the tercentenary of Scarlatti’s birth and involved Scott Ross learning most of the works and recording them over a period of about 18 months. He was a very fine harpsichordist who was born in America, living in the South of France at the time and already suffering from AIDS. He died in 1989 at the age of 38.

I can imagine that much of the last paragraph might already have put many off. How could quality be maintained in such circumstances? Well, such preconceptions should be put aside for they are first-rate. Ross was a tasteful player who eschewed virtuosity for its own sake. He had a superb sense of rhythm, was fully equal to the technical demands of the works and he used wonderful sounding instruments. One doesn’t have to be a harpsichord "freak" or super-authenticist to enjoy these recordings. I came to Scarlatti through the piano via Horowitz and Pletnev (and still listen to them) but this is how the music should really sound.

Above all, Scarlatti’s music is the reason to get to know this set. I am not going to argue that there is a great sense of progression as one proceeds through the sonatas. What is on offer is endless invention and many surprises. Scarlatti was the master of this genre and it is no more ludicrous to think of listening to all his sonatas than to do the same for all Bach’s cantatas (which would take you about twice as long). Excluding the eight which are not for solo harpsichord, none of these works lasts more than 7 minutes and about 3-4 minutes is the average. They can be sampled in small (or large) quantities whenever the mood takes and will invariably grab one’s attention.

Perhaps the most compelling reason to acquire this set now is the recent bargain price, slimline re-issue. I have occasionally seen the original complete set behind the counter in large record shops, 34 jewel cases and costing well over £200. That was a proposition which was out of range for almost everybody and could hardly have been carried home anyway. Now it is available from Amazon at just under £90 (see link above). The presentation is very attractive and documentation superb with extensive notes on the works by Ross, a glossary and an interview with Ross about the project. The track listings alone occupy over fifty pages. The only slight disappointment is that some of the CDs are quite short – if they had been fuller (say averaging 75 minutes), this could have been fitted on to 28 CDs! One small omission from the documentation seems to a lack of comment on the pitch used. I would expect this to have been kept constant and to be flatter than modern concert pitch, and that is how it sounds.

I can't imagine that many prospective purchasers will be new to the composer. If like me, you had been gradually building up a Scarlatti collection and realising that you were certainly going to die on the job, then this is the obvious remedy. There are a few ongoing projects aiming to record all these sonatas but as far as I am aware, only Richard Lester's project for the Privilege Accord label is complete (link). In fact it seems more complete than this one as 13 sonatas not in Kirkpatrick's catalogue are included and the project runs to 38 CDs costing £215. If you must have these works on the piano, then I don't think hearing them all is going to be easy and I doubt that there is any pianist who has even contemplated it. Naxos's series on the piano has a different pianist for each CD and has reached disc 7 after several years. At the current rate of progress you will need to be quite young and/or live very healthily to see that one out. Somehow it is hard to imagine that Ross's achievement will ever be excelled. A single disc sample of the set is available on Elatus if you are wavering (AmazonUK £8.99).

Below I have summarised briefly key information about the composer, the works, the artist and the recordings. In relation to the first two of these, if you want to know more, Ralph Kirkpatrick’s book on the composer (dating from 1953 and available in paperback published by Princeton University Press) is essential (AmazonUK AmazonUSA) although at nearly £30 it is not cheap.

Track listings, brief remarks on the individual discs and conclusions are given on separate pages - see internal links given below. For reasons that I hope will be obvious enough, I have not made many comparisons with other recordings.

The composer

Domenico Scarlatti was born in Naples in 1685, the sixth child of Alessandro Scarlatti who by then was an opera composer of considerable repute. This was a very musical family and Domenico also started off by composing operas. In early adult life he had trouble extricating himself from this father’s clutches and eventually took legal action against him. In 1719 he went to Portugal where he taught the Infanta Maria Barbara who was no mean keyboard player. In 1728 she married Crown Prince Fernando of Spain and moved to Madrid, taking Scarlatti with her. Fernando and Maria Barbara acceded to the throne of Spain in 1746. Scarlatti remained in the service of the Queen until he died in 1757. Although not as favoured by her as Faranelli, she was generous to Scarlatti, settling his gambling debts (in return for sonatas?) and then providing a pension to his second wife and children after his death. None of Scarlatti’s children were musicians but his descendants were still living in Madrid in the mid-20th century.

The works

Although Scarlatti composed other music, only the keyboard sonatas are of significant interest today. All were composed for Maria Barbara i.e. after he moved to Portugal. Only thirty of the works were published in his lifetime (in London in 1738, Kk1-30) and the majority probably date from the last few years of his life. The works were arbitrarily catalogued and published for performance on the piano by Alessandro Longo in 1906 but his editions contained many amendments and inappropriate "corrections". The American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick (1911-1984) prepared an approximately chronological catalogue in the 1940s and 1950s – the Kk numbers used today. Only since the early 1980s has a complete critical edition of these works been available – this was prepared by Kenneth Gilbert and used for these recordings.

Kirkpatrick's book has a detailed chapter on the anatomy of a Scarlatti sonata. Most of them are single movements with a binary structure separated a central double bar but there are several single span fugues. In the binary sonatas, normal practice is to repeat both halves and Ross usually does so in the recordings I have heard so far, often with embellishments. Some of the sonatas are "open" (i.e. are the material opening the second half is unrelated to that opening the first half) but most are "closed" (i.e. opening the material is the same). Eight of the works are not for solo harpsichord, three of which are for organ and five for the harpsichord accompanied by other instruments. These five have three or four movements each - the only ones with multiple movements. These eight outliers (Kk Nos. 81, 88-91, 287-8, 328) are grouped together on the final disc of the set; otherwise the recordings are presented in strict Kk order. Large numbers of these sonatas are in minor keys and most have fast tempo markings although a simple Allegro is consistent with quite a wide range of tempi in Scarlatti.

One oddity is that Kk 204 is two works – in the same key (F minor) designated Kk204a and Kk204b. They are actually a pair of sonatas and I have not been able to find out why they didn’t get separate numbers in Kirkpatrick’s catalogue (a late glitch?) since he recognised that many of the works are paired. These were usually given consecutive Kk numbers, should ideally be performed back to back and are normally in the same key. A few works are part of a triptych. The implication arising from Kk204 seems to be that there are really 556 sonatas in Kirkpatrick's catalogue rather than 555!

The final, and perhaps key, point about Scarlatti’s sonatas is that within broadly the same structure he innovated considerably technically and harmonically, and found an almost infinite amount of variety. This is why I believe it is worth exploring the whole oeuvre. Perhaps 10% of these works have become quite well known through multiple recordings, particularly by virtuoso pianists. My experience, however, is that popular does not necessarily mean better. Scarlatti’s music often looks innocent enough on the page but is said to be much more difficult to play. It is also possible to listen to all the solo works by virtue of downloading MIDI files recorded by John Sankey which are freely available on the internet (link). That is also an impressive achievement but Scott Ross's recordings are in a different league. John Sankey has also made it possible to print off the music for first 176 sonatas from the link given above. I have also come across a useful website which has lists of the sonatas sorted by Kirkpatrick, Longo and Pestelli numbers (the last is new to me), and by key (link). There are also data on the number of times each key was used - D major is the most frequent with 76 instances.

The artist

Scott Ross was born in Pittsburgh in 1951 but emigrated to France at the age of 14 and then studied in Nice and Paris. He was clearly an extraordinary man. The booklet reprints his obituary from The Times and a fascinating interview he gave in 1986 about the making of these recordings. It is suggested that he "played music as he played life – with a blend of freedom and discipline". Naturally unconventional, he embraced the baroque harpsichord repertoire whilst still harbouring some desire to be a pianist. He also recorded with complete keyboard works of Rameau and Couperin but these do not seem to be available at the moment.

The recordings

This was a joint project between Erato and Radio France which ran from June 1984 to September 1985 and involved 8000 "takes". Radio France broadcast all the sonatas in 200 programmes during 1985. In his interview Ross said that "it was a terrible wrench" when it was over. I should also laud Alain de Chambure who was the producer and the sound engineer for most of the sonatas, Alain Duchemin. Ross himself was closely involved in the editing process. The recorded sound is excellent and the quality remains consistent despite the use of several venues (most were recorded in Studios 103 and 107 of Radio France in Paris). The discs play at a consistently high dynamic level and are likely to require a cut in volume from the normal setting. Several different instruments were used, most of which were recent copies of French style double-manual harpsichords. More information on the instruments is given in the notes on the individual discs.

Patrick C Waller

Internal links

Discs 1-11 Discs 12-22 Discs 23-34 Conclusions

External links

Sale of complete set:

AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Sale of single disc sampler:

AmazonUK £8.99

Sale of Kirkpatrick’s book:

AmazonUK AmazonUSA

John Sankey’s MIDI files:

http://www.midiworld.com/scarlatti.htm

Sonatas listed by Kk, L and P numbers:

http://www.classical.net/music/composer/works/scarlattid

Richard Lester's complete set:

http://www.the-scarlatti-experience.fsnet.co.uk/indexb.htm

 



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