Having reviewed and enjoyed two volumes of Richard Lester’s
Nimbus recordings of Frescobaldi, NI5850 and NI5870 – review
– and the 3-CD appendix of his complete Domenico Scarlatti sonatas,
NI1731 – review
– and having frequently listened to some of his other Scarlatti
performances from the Naxos Music Library, I was pleased to
receive this reissue of the complete set. These performances
have been available for some time now on 3-, 5- and 6-CD sets
and are now gathered together in mp3 format:
NI1725 Volume 1 (6 CDs)
NI1726 Volume 2 (6CDs)
NI1727 Volume 3 (6CDs) – review
Ni1728 Volume 4 (6CDs)
NI1729 Volume 5 (6CDs) – review
NI1730 Volume 6 (5CDs) – review
NI1731 Volume 7 (3CDs) – review
NI5822 Selection of 48 favourite sonatas (2 CDs)
At the risk of putting the cart before the horse, I’ll comment
on the format first. The recordings on this mp3 release contain
320 kb/s files – that’s the highest possible bit-rate for the
format, though it involves a degree of compression by comparison
with lossless files, of which more anon. Normally I wouldn’t
recommend playing mp3 files direct from CD because of the short
gap between tracks that even an mp3-compatible disc player inserts;
that’s the case with the Hallé Götterdämmerung, for
example, which should be copied to a hard drive and played from
there, but in this case each track is discrete so, if your disc
player will cope with mp3s, you won’t need to copy these recordings
to your computer.
Most modern players, even portable ones, will cope, but if you
don’t own such a player, let me recommend the very versatile
Cambridge Audio 650BD and its successor, the 651BD – equally
adept with blu-ray, for which it’s primarily designed, SACD,
DVD, CD and mp3. I listened to these recordings via a variety
of systems – on my audio system using the Cambridge player,
on TV using the DVD recorder, in car and on an mp3 player. Of
these, of course, the mp3 player produces the least satisfactory
sound because of the limitations of the on-ear ‘phones – they’re
far better than the in-ear buds that come with most mp3 players
but obviously limited.
You wouldn’t want to sit down and listen to nothing but these
sonatas for 41 hours on end, though the format is more varied
than you might think and the use of different keyboard instruments
makes for some variety. Most of the music is played on a copy
of a 1785 Portuguese harpsichord – the sonatas were written
for such an Iberian instrument, Scarlatti having been employed
at the Portuguese and Spanish courts* – with alternative versions
of some sonatas on the fortepiano or organ. Nevertheless, it
would be very wise to take a disc at a time.
The two organs employed both have a suitably ‘Iberian’ sound,
but with the advantage that they are in tune, which is not always
a given for the native products. The ‘nightingale’ stop employed
at the opening of K328 sounded somewhat bizarre; Lester admits
that he used it only because he liked it.
Richard Lester’s approach to the music is predominantly scholarly,
as is apparent from the information in the booklet notes, but
he has also clearly concerned himself not just with matters
of tuning and pitch – a variety of equal and non-equal temperaments
are employed – but also with how Scarlatti intended the music
to sound. The instruments employed are chosen from
the latter viewpoint.
There’s no doubt of Lester’s dexterity in playing these works,
but the performances also bring out the individuality of the
music, and, even more importantly, the extent to which he enjoys
it. From our modern perspective, it may seem, as it did to Stravinsky
listening to Vivaldi, that the same formula is employed 500+
times, but that’s the perspective of the onlooker who wonders
how the shepherd recognises the individual characteristics of
all his sheep. I can’t pretend to tell, say, K366 apart from
K367 if I heard one of them played on the radio in the same
way that I can (usually) tell you which Mozart piano concerto
– or, even, Vivaldi work – I’m listening to, but there is variety
in Lester’s performances. The continuo sonatas on the final
CD are especially welcome in that respect; that disc also contains
a work in similar vein by Scarlatti senior, Alessandro, and
one by Handel.
The recording is very close and with little stereo spread –
I found the same to be true of the Frescobaldi recordings –
but, in mitigation, the harpsichord is notoriously difficult
to record; if it’s too distant the sound is apt to get lost,
and the volume at which one plays the recording back is also
critical. Too low a playback volume and there’s no power in
the music; too high and it can be overwhelming. In this case
I thought that the original Volume VII benefited from being
played at rather less than normal volume and such is the case
with these mp3 discs, too. On ‘phones in particular I had to
reduce the normal listening volume very considerably to avoid
being knocked out.
In all modes, however, the sound is bright and clear and didn’t
significantly limit my enjoyment. As for the mp3 compression,
I didn’t find that it limited the sound to any noticeable degree.
That’s not surprising because the same applies to Nimbus’s earlier
mp3 release of Bach’s complete organ music and the Haydn symphonies,
as also to the Halle mp3 Götterdämmerung, which also
emanates from the Wyastone estate. You’ll find that I made detailed
comparisons between some of the original CDs of the Bach and
the mp3 versions and could hear little significant difference:
NI5280 and NI5289 compared with the mp3 version on NI1721 –
Bargain of the Month: review.
Similarly, I compared the conventional 5-CD Götterdämmerung
on CDHLD7525 with the mp3 version on CDHLM7530 – review.
It may just be the case that some systems simply won’t like
the very bright up-front sound of these recordings. If you worry
that your system may be one such, try listening via the Naxos
Music Library if you can; it’s a very worthwhile investment
to take out a subscription. Otherwise, classicsonline.com will
allow you to sample 30 seconds from each track. If, however,
your experience is in any way similar to mine – and I did try
several systems – you won’t hear aught amiss and can buy with
confidence. (MusicWeb International is offering a money back
gurantee on these recordings - see below)
Mark Sealey, reviewing the original Volume V – here
– from which the Trio Sonatas on CD9 are taken commented on
the balance – the recorders are placed very forward, the harpsichord
backward in comparison, and the acoustic sounds decidedly odd,
but that’s the only significant problem which I found. The organ
recordings are pretty well ideal, while the fortepiano has a
dry sound – no doubt a realistic representation of how it sounded
In reviewing the 3-CD set on Volume VII of the original issues
I complained of the sparsity of the information. The present
release makes full amends with very adequate documentation.
There’s extra information in pdf format and an Excel spreadsheet
to supplement the full track listings in the booklet. There’s
only one way in which these recordings could have been presented
in more compact form and that’s by copying them to a USB memory
stick, as Chandos have done with some of their releases. (Actually,
Chandos offer both losssles, wma or flac to choice, as well
as mp3 on their USB releases.) You can drag all nine CDs, including
the pdf booklet and Excel spreadsheet, to a single 8GB USB stick
if you’re looking to take up even less space.
The price of £22, including p&p., direct from MusicWeb is
one that you aren’t likely to match anywhere else, barring short-term
special offers. It’s advertised as a notable bargain; I can
certainly say that it qualifies as such without fear or favour
and it’s far less expensive than buying just one of the constituent
6-CD sets even as a download. If the prospect of 41 hours of
Domenico Scarlatti on the keyboard is too daunting, there’s
a 2-CD distillation of 48 favourite sonatas from the series
on Nimbus NI5822/3, £16 including p&p from MusicWeb – here.
* Elaborately bound manuscript volumes of the sonatas were bequeathed
to the Italian singer Farinelli and ended up in Venice, hence
their designation as ‘Venice I-XV’.
CD1 K1-30 (1739); K148-176 (Venice I, 1752); K177-185 (Venice
CD2 K186-201, 49, 98, 99, 129 (Venice II, 1752); K206-248 (Venice
III, 1753); K236-248 (Venice IV, 1753)
CD3 K249-265 (Venice IV, 1753); K266-286; K287-8 (organ), K279-295
(Venice V, 1753); K296-322 (Venice VI, 1753)
CD4 K323-325 (Venice VI, 1753); K326-327, K328 (organ), K329-355
(Venice VII, 1754); K358-387 (Venice VIII, 1754), K388-390,
K391 (fortepiano), K392-400 (Venice IX, 1754)
CD5 K401-417 (Venice IX, 1754); K418 (harpsichord and fortepiano),
K419-421, K422 (harpsichord and fortepiano), K423-428, K429-431
(harpsichord and fortepiano), K432-433, K434 (harpsichord and
fortepiano), K435-436, K437 (harpsichord and fortepiano), K438,
K439 (harpsichord and fortepiano), K440-451 (Venice X, 1755);
K454-471 (Venice XI, 1756)
CD6 K472-483 (Venice XI, 1756); K484-513 (Venice XII, 1757);
K514-541 (Venice, 1757)
CD7 K542-453 (Venice XIII, 1757); K43-57, K58 (organ), K59-77,
10-12, 17, 31, 36-38, 79, 80, 82-87, 92, 93 (organ) (Venice
XIV, 1742); K98-103, K96, K104-118 (Venice XV, 1749)
CD8 K119-138 (Venice XV, 1749)
CD9 Appendices and diversities – 23 sonatas from existing and
unpublished manuscripts; K32-42; K202-203, 204a/b, K205, K356-357,
K452, K453 (harpsichord and fortepiano), K544-K555;
Continuo Sonatas, K78; K81, K88-91; George Frideric HANDEL
Sonata in F, HWV405; Alessandro SCARLATTI Sinfonia in
c minor – with Academia Musicali (Elizabeth Lester (treble recorder),
Nerys Evans (descant recorder)).
Kirk McElhearn has also listened to this set but
with mixed results
To start with, let me state that including a track list would
be quite an undertaking. I’ll refer the reader to this Wikipedia
page. It’s worth noting, however, that this set also includes
a number of sonatas without K numbers from “existing and unpublished
manuscripts,” in addition to the standard 555 that Ralph Kirkpatrick
catalogued, as well as eight “continuo sonatas,” six by Scarlatti,
one by Handel, and one by Alessandro Scarlatti.
So here at last, in a super-bargain version is the full set
of Richard Lester’s recordings of Scarlatti. Ever since Scott
Ross’s monumental recording in 1984-5, for Radio France - later
issued on 34 CDs by Erato - this has been one of the Everests
of classical music. Few have recorded these works in their entirety;
as far as I know, the only other complete set, beside Ross and
Lester, is Peter-Jan Belder’s recent recording for Brilliant
Classics, on 36 discs, released in 2008 (and recorded from 2000
to 2007). Carlos Grante is currently recording the complete
sonatas on a Bösendorfer piano, which offers a unique sound
for these works. A complete Naxos set on piano is also under
It’s hard to imagine recording something as massive as this
and still maintaining the necessary distance to truly give each
sonata its due. When Scott Ross recorded the sonatas, it was
over an 18-month period, in 98 recording sessions, he knew he
was dying of AIDS. This must have been a herculean task, especially
doing so in such a short time. Lester and Belder took, respectively,
6 and 8 years for their recordings.
While I don’t own the Belder set, I do have Scott Ross’s recordings,
and comparing the two, Ross comes out way ahead. While it’s
fair to say that Ross may not have had the time to polish each
sonata, the quality of the sound of the Erato recordings is
so much better than that of these Nimbus recordings that, in
spite of differences of interpretation, I would pick Ross’s
set hands down. Lester’s instruments are miked very closely,
and, in dipping into this set, I found some pieces that to my
ears sounded very bad. Taking on example: K366, where the harpsichord
sounds distorted; I’m not sure if this is from the compression
or from the recording being simply too loud, and the sound being
clipped. While you may enjoy the closeness of the recordings
for certain of the works, those that distort are just unlistenable.
It should be noted that the reviews of the original CD releases
of these recordings on MusicWeb International don’t mention
any issues with the sound, so it’s very possible that, aside
from the close miking, the poor sound could be a result of the
MP3 compression. The harpsichord is one of the hardest instruments
to compress, because of the very complex overtones and harmonics
at high frequencies.
Also, there is no sense of stereo in the Lester recordings;
they almost sound as though they were recorded in mono. On the
other hand, Ross’s harpsichord sounds large and fills the soundscape
delightfully. The handful of sonatas Lester recorded on fortepiano
do sound fine; they almost make me wish he had done the entire
set on that instrument.
Given the annoying sound quality, I cannot recommend this set,
even at its bargain price of £30. You can get the Scott Ross
set for around £75, and the difference is certainly worth paying.
Bear in mind that this music can be a bit mind-numbing. The
sonatas are all in the same form, and generally sound pretty
much alike, though Scarlatti was able to create 555 (or so)
truly unique works. I find this music to be wonderful a disc
at a time, but any more than that makes it all blur together.
See also Patrick
Waller’s review of Scott Ross’s recordings.
Kirk McElhearn writes about more than just music on his
blog Kirkville (http://www.mcelhearn.com).
Brian Wilson Comments:
I was so surprised that Kirk McElhearn had found the mp3 recording
of these Scarlatti sonatas lacking in several respects that
I listened to them again. I don’t own any of the individual
sets that have just been reissued on NI1719, but I reviewed
and enjoyed two volumes of Richard Lester’s Nimbus recordings
of Frescobaldi and have frequently listened to some of his performances
of Domenico Scarlatti from the Naxos Music Library. These have
been available for some time now on 3-, 5- and 6-CD sets.
For those who don’t listen to downloads or streamed music, which
has become something of a speciality of mine in the last four
years with the bi-monthly Download Roundups which I
contribute – why not try the most recent, Download
News 2012/19 – the Naxos Music Library offers streamed music
from Naxos, its sister labels, and a number of other major and
independent labels, including the whole Nimbus catalogue. Depending
on your subscription, there’s a choice between ‘Near CD’ and
‘CD quality’, both in compressed (mp3) sound and, therefore,
comparable with the mp3 files being offered by Nimbus on the
Before I get down to the nitty-gritty question of distortion,
let me agree with Kirk on two points: you wouldn’t want to sit
down and listen to nothing but these sonatas for 41 hours on
end – that would be what he describes as ‘mind-numbing’ or worse,
though the format is more varied than he implies and the use
of different keyboard instruments makes for some variety. Most
of the music is played on a 1785 harpsichord, with alternative
versions of some sonatas on the fortepiano or organ. Nevertheless,
Kirk is very wise to recommend taking one disc at a time.
He’s also certainly right to say that the recording is very
close and with little stereo spread – I found the same to be
true of the Frescobaldi recordings – but, in mitigation, as
I say above, the harpsichord is notoriously difficult to record;
if it’s too distant the sound is apt to get lost, and the volume
at which one plays the recording back is also critical. Too
low a playback volume and there’s no power in the music; too
high and it can be overwhelming.
I listened particularly carefully to Volume 3/disc 5 which contains
the sonatas K358 to K372 and includes K366 which Kirk found
particularly problematic. All the works here are performed on
the harpsichord and Richard Lester’s keyboard prestidigitation
is apparent throughout. More to the point, he imparts a sense
of individuality to each sonata and his interpretations are
thoroughly musical as well as accomplished. K366, also known
by its old Longo number L119, though not well known from various
anthologies of Scarlatti’s sonatas, would serve well as a typical
example of the style and it receives a very impressive performance.
It’s certainly also typical of the recording quality of the
whole of that disc in that it sounds pretty up-front and with
limited aural spread. I didn’t, however, hear any distortion
on either of my audio systems, though they have quite different
characteristics, one much warmer, the other considerably brighter.
I also listened on ‘phones – both my larger Sennheisers and
the smaller over-ear clip-ons that I use with my mp3 player
on the rare occasions when I bother with it. On ’phones I had
to reduce the normal listening volume very considerably to avoid
being knocked out. In all modes, however, the sound is bright
and clear and didn’t significantly limit my enjoyment.
How come the discrepancy between my experience and Kirk McElhearn’s?
I’m certainly not a sound engineer – not even a scientist, with
degrees in the arts and literature – but I have noticed that
some recordings sound much better on some systems than others.
I recently listened to a programme of music for flute, harp
and viola at low volume late at night and thought it well recorded;
next day, on my other system at a higher volume, it sounded
Even stranger; in an effort to get the Parry revival en
route I downloaded the Hyperion recording of Job
in lossless sound and burned it to CD. I was so surprised to
hear the voices sounding undernourished by comparison with the
orchestra that I listened on the same system directly from my
computer and – you’ve guessed it – the balance was just right.
Don’t ask me why.
It may well be, then, that some systems simply won’t like the
very bright up-front sound of these recordings. If you worry
that your system may be one such, try listening via the Naxos
Music Library if you can; it’s a very worthwhile investment
to take out a subscription. Otherwise, classicsonline.com will
allow you to sample 30 seconds from each track – you’ll find
Volume 3, with K366, here. If, however, your experience is in
any way similar to mine, you won’t hear aught amiss and can
buy with confidence.
Nimbus comments and Money
I have listened to K366, which was specifically mentioned in
the review as exhibiting 'distortion'. I don't hear any distortion
either on the original WAV masters or the MP3 file. I can agree
that the recording of this sonata is close miked but there is
no 'clipping' on the original recording, and I do not hear any
artifacts that might be a function of the MP3 compression. It
has been our experience that no listeners have been able to
identify any of our Nimbus MP3 Editions from their original
CDs with any degree of accuracy or consistency. In practise
they sound identical. The Scarlatti in particular offers huge
value and we are happy to extend a 'No Risk' return policy to
So if you are unfortunate enough to experience distortion return
your discs and a covering letter to Adrian Farmer, Nimbus, Wyastone
Leys, Monmouth, NP25 3SR, UK and e-mail Len
Mullenger to ask for a refund.
Geoff Molyneux has also listened to this set
Having already read the erudite essays on these recordings
by Brian Wilson and Kirk McElhearn, I will just confine myself
to a few additional thoughts and comments.
This is a very valuable and scholarly achievement. To have
the complete Scarlatti sonatas together, here following the
chronology of Queen Maria Barbara’s manuscripts, is like
having a dictionary or encyclopedia for reference purposes.
So this is like a reference library for these works, especially
for those who are studying Scarlatti for musicological or performance
purposes. I will certainly find them very handy. But part of
the skill of the Scarlatti player is to select from this vast
output a group of diverse pieces to entertain his audience.
So if I were to listen to Scarlatti for pure enjoyment and pleasure,
I would not play one of these discs necessarily in the order
presented here. I would prefer to hear a judicious selection
made by a performer for his recital. Having said that, I have
noticed that Richard Lester is very skilled in presenting very
similar pieces in a variety of articulations and tempi. So for
example, K249 and K250 are both marked to be played Allegro.
The former in B flat major is lively and dramatic and I particularly
like his attack on the chords at the beginning of sections.
K250 in C major sets the right mood at a convincing tempo, a
little slower than K249. So variety in performance and mood
can be achieved in these works when presenting them chronologically.
I wonder if Richard Lester would play them in the same way if
he were giving a concert of selections.
I enjoyed these discs very much. Disc 1 sets off at a cracking
pace with No. 1 in D minor in which the performer’s effective
use of vibrato is very convincing. K2 is in happier mood and
K3 is a fabulous piece with some unexpected turns of phrase.
Lester gives K19 some beautifully clear ornamentation and a
very exciting performance it is too. K29 is fast and furious
and K30 is marked Moderato, although Lester moves along quite
quickly in this rather more contrapuntal piece.
Occasionally some sonatas sounded a bit too scholarly. I thought
K388 in G was a bit laboured. I fear that K271 is an example
of the pulse slowing down a touch when Lester indulges in some
elaborate ornamentation. But these minor niggles are few and
far between. In K3I6 in F a good, steady tempo is maintained
throughout, thus allowing the triplet semiquavers to speak crisply
and clearly. K317 is firmly and solidly played and K322, again
marked Allegro, is played at a more moderate tempo showing us
how this mood and tempo indication can be interpreted in a myriad
of ways. There is certainly plenty of variety in these Essercizi
K1-30 to allow the performer to demonstrate his musicality and
Variety is also achieved in this recording with Richard Lester's
use of several instruments. For example K415 is played firstly
on harpsichord then on fortepiano. Certainly it sounds correct
that the harpsichord version is a little faster, and I found
the harpsichord more convincing in this piece. Maybe I just
have a bit of an aversion to the fortepiano! I really enjoyed
K58 and K93 played on an eighteenth century organ in Barnsley
Church near Cirencester. I also liked the Continuo Sonatas on
Disc 9 played on descant or treble recorder with harpsichord,
though it might have been better to have had a couple of them
with violin as solo instrument as a contrast.
I agree with Brian Wilson that the best way to record the
harpsichord is to have the microphones pretty close and then
lower the volume as necessary. My own harpsichord is in the
same room as the hifi and the close sound is remarkably similar
on the harpsichords, live or recorded. I listened very hard
for the distortion mentioned and I played the discs on two different
sets of equipment but I could not hear any distortion at all.
I particularly listened to K366 which Kirk McElhearn found so
offensive, but I found the recordings to be very good indeed.
This is a really excellent collection and well-worth the small
financial outlay even if it only remains on your shelf as a
reference work or for playing the occasional selection for pleasure.
The scholarly booklet is also very valuable.
Other CD mp3 sets available:
(1732-1809) The Complete Symphonies - MP3 Edition
Haydn Orchestra/Adam Fischer NIMBUS
NI 1722 [8 CDs: approx. 37hrs] £23
(1685-1750) The Works for Organ (MP3 Edition)
Kevin Bowyer (organ) rec. 1991- 2001. DDD.
NIMBUS NI1721 [8 CDs: 30:52:00] £23
Götterdämmerung Mark Elder Conductor HALLE CD HLM
7530 Full libretto as a pdf file £11