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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Patrick C Waller
Sale of complete set:
Sale of single disc sampler:
Sale of Kirkpatrick’s book:
John Sankey’s MIDI files:
Sonatas listed by Kk, L and P numbers:
Richard Lester's complete set: