Thursday, May 15, 2008

An Embarassment of Riches

Domenico Scarlatti: The Keyboard Sonatas
Scott Ross, Harpsichord
Warner Classics, 2564-62092-2, 1986


In the process of updating some stuff in my iTunes, I threw out the MP3 files of Scott Ross's set of 555 Keyboard Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti and re-ripped them into AAC format (slightly smaller files, and a bit better sound). This requires going back through and renaming everything, since I virtually never get correct titles off of the CD Database (and certainly not titles formatted to my taste). What really drives me crazy is that SOMEBODY bothered to submit these track titles to the database, and yet they have no consistency from one disc to the next, and are often a semi-intelligible scramble--no composer listed, artist's name listed as composer, instrument listed as piano, genre as rock or pop. And these are the only track name options available in the database (if there are several, they will prompt you to pick which one you want), so someone actually submitted them in this haphazard fashion! Why bother? Virtually anyone will have to reenter all this stuff in what is a fairly tedious and laborious process.

(I really shouldn't complain too much, as I've kind of developed my own formatting over the years, and so much of the typing would have to be done in any case. The words "major" and "minor" are omitted, replaced by upper or lowercase letters; the words "in" and "for" and other superfluities are dropped from titles; unless it's not obvious, the instrument gets deleted. So Piano Sonata No. 5 in c minor, Op. 5 becomes Op.5 Sonata 5c. Or Concerto for Harpsichord and Strings No.1 in F Major, Op. 77, First Movement: Andante becomes Op.77 Harpsichord Concerto 1F / 1--Andante. Takes much less space. But this means that I have a perpetually unfinished editing task facing me, as everything on my iTunes has to get the treatment.)

How easily I get off track. My point was to talk about Scarlatti. He's one of the Big Three born in 1685 (along with Bach and Handel), and is remembered chiefly for his huge output of sonatas for the harpsichord. Though Italian by birth, he became the official composer of the Spanish Queen Maria Barbara, and wrote his huge number of sonatas for the queen's tutelage (she was obviously a pretty accomplished keyboardist). Scarlatti himself seems to have been a spectacular player, even besting the brilliant Handel in a contest at the harpsichord (though Handel was judged the superior at the organ).

The fascinating thing is what Scarlatti accomplished with such a restricted palette. I love the sound of the harpsichord, but it's a limited instrument in its expressive capacities. It has some tiered dynamic control, but it's quite rudimentary compared with, say, a piano (harpsichordists would argue this, I'm sure; but the harpsichord's limited dynamic control is indisputable). The clavichord--said to be Bach's favorite instrument--is a much closer historic analog to our modern piano, but it was unable to produce the volume necessary for anything more than small salon performance. A larger room or concert hall required a more powerful instrument, and the harpsichord was the best the period had to offer. The comparatively thin sound produced by plucking the strings actually makes for great harmonic development, and harpsichords are almost always tuned to a non-equal temperament. So the instrument can produce a rich and very satisfying sound. But it's very much a sound of a particular era in music history, and the music written reflects the limitations of the instrument (nobody tries to play Chopin or Rachmaninov on a harpsichord).

One aspect of Bach's musical genius is his ability to produce really profound things while working within the restrictive contrapuntal forms. It's as though he needed some obstacle to overcome for his expression to take wing. And there's an element of this in Scarlatti's achievement. His Sonatas are virtually all written for the harpsichord, almost all are bipartite, and they fall stylistically within a fairly narrow range. Well, one would think that the limits of this formula would be quickly reached. And yet he managed 555 of them! That's an unbelievable number of a single type of composition. There seems to have been no limit to his ability to find new themes and fresh ways to assemble them. And each one is a gem unto itself.

Thanks to Horowitz and others, these sonatas are heard more and more from pianists. (I remember the CD notes of a perfectly horrid recording of Scarlatti Sonatas by the pianist Alexis Weissenberg wherein he wrote that only 15 or so of the 555 are suited to the piano. I have considerably more than 15 recorded on piano, and they sound great, thanks.) But the harpsichord does have its charm and an undeniable correctness with this repertoire, and the late Scott Ross is a most persuasive proponent of the literature. He uses several different instruments in the course of the cycle, so that one's ear gets a bit of variety. Just the same, one is unlikely to sit down for all 555 of them; this set--on 34 discs--takes a day and a half of continuous play to run its course! So the "variety" angle is a bit moot. (I read that the whole recording enterprise required over 8,000 takes!)

I bought the original release of these CDs on Erato Disques 20-some years ago, but I see they're still available from Warner's catalog as a budget release. If you're a collector, I simply can't imagine anyone topping this effort and I highly recommend the release. I have a number of other very persuasive exponents of this music--Andras Schiff and Trevor Pinnock, both on some older recordings; and I've ordered a more recent Mikhail Pletnev recording that shows great promise--but Mr. Ross holds his own on a case-by-case basis, and offers exhaustive completeness to boot.

The recordings are almost 25 years old now, but they could have been recorded yesterday. The sound is excellent.

So I've hours of work at my computer here to re-input all the information for this release. At least I've got some really engaging music to keep me company.


Anonymous said...

I find the Weissenberg recording of Scarlatti absolutely fascinating. Weissenberg is one of the Titans of the keyboard, and I believe his approach is an acquired taste.

wunelle said...

Fair enough. Surely Weissenberg would not become so prominent by being without talent. But that particular recording sure didn't work for me! (I can see that additional listenings might have let me acclimate to him--I think I sold the disc a year or two after I bought it.)

Thanks for stopping by.