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The Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti

Discussion in 'Music & Music Streaming Services' started by Todd_A, Sep 18, 2005.

  1. Todd_A


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    Immediately below is a review I wrote about four years ago concerning Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas. Last month I relistened to all 555 sonatas and wrote some very brief descriptions of some highlights.

    The Review

    About three months ago I wrote of my elation at buying the 34-disc set of Domenico Scarlatti’s complete keyboard sonatas as played by Scott Ross for a paltry $140. I also mentioned that I was up to the challenge of listening for weeks. The time frame expanded due to a confluence of factors, including work, family, other spectacular CD purchases, and a brief hiatus from extended listening sessions early last month. I have finally finished the set and feel compelled to indulge myself (again) and write about the experience.

    Let me start by writing that I had originally set out to compile a list of my favorite sonatas and then report on the specific merits of the assorted little gems. After about five or six CDs and a list about fifty sonatas long I thought better of that approach. Better to report on the best individual discs I then surmised. Through about disc 20 that seemed a good approach. Then all the later discs revealed themselves to range from splendid to truly extraordinary. What to do?

    Well, to keep it brief (or at least relatively so), I decided to simply write of my general impression of the set. So here it is: Domenico Scarlatti is one of the great musical geniuses of western music. Of this there is and can be no doubt. All of the works are of such high caliber that it is difficult to find a bad one. Or a mediocre one. The quality is so consistently high that nothing bad can be written. Only Bach, Beethoven, and Prokofiev wrote substantial bodies of keyboard music that maintain such a high level of quality throughout.

    That is not to write that all of the sonatas are equal. They most certainly are not. For my own convenience, and this is certainly not meant to be even remotely academic or musicological, I view the sonatas as being in three or four (it gets fuzzy) different categories. Quite a good number of the works sound to be work-a-day compositions written for Her Royal Highness of Spain to play with ease. (She must have been quite a good keyboardist!) The structures are never less than impeccable and even the most pedantic of the works have their charms. Still, while a number of the sonatas give the impression of being obviously well written and superbly crafted, they nevertheless sound rather pedestrian, at least compared to the better works.

    A large chunk of the works fall into a fuzzy realm ranging from inspired (gambling-debt) bill paying works to hastily penned improvisations. I would say most of the works fall into these “categories.” So much invention and so much musical joy emanate from these works that one has a tendency to hurriedly and greedily listen to as many of them in a row as possible. Ideas are spun out so quickly that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all.

    Then there are the masterworks. These works are visionary and transcend the Baroque. There are some thrilling sonatas in that vast output and the effect they have on the listener (me) is something else. Probably starting at around Kk 230 or so they begin to show up regularly. A few of these works appear early on and the last 150 or so sonatas are full of them. Oh, how I wish I would have cited the specific sonatas and how I wish I had the technical musical vocabulary to describe what they contain! From a less than academic perspective, there are thrilling trills and arpeggios and grand, sweeping chords varied and repeated with vivacious speed. Little effects like seeming pizzicato passages appear here and there, and there are some other, occasional tricks I have not heard played on the harpsichord before. Scarlatti clearly took advantage of the fullest range of notes possible on the keyboards at his disposal. It is these masterworks that make the set most impressive. I would say, conservatively, that there are about 100 of them. These sonatas easily transcend their time and can be translated to the piano with no loss. And perhaps even gain.

    That leads me to my next point. Scarlatti’s sonatas are best served overall by a harpsichord. His compositions are to the harpsichord what Chopin’s compositions are to the piano. That is, they represent the “natural” voice of the instrument, if you allow me a slightly anthropomorphic aside. Again, some of the works may even benefit from being played on the piano, but everything just sounds so right with the harpsichord. At some point you must hear Scarlatti played properly on a harpsichord. Now some of you may think: “Yuck, the harpsichord. Bah!” Don’t. Now I’ve heard some annoying sounding harpsichord recordings, but these sound good. The four different instruments used all have different sounds, and while the one used for the first 30 sonatas and some others is a little bright ‘n’ brittle, the one used for the final 200 or so is one of the most glorious sounding instruments I have had the pleasure to hear. There is a warmth and complexity of tone that somewhat belies its heritage. I’ve certainly heard fortepianos that sound worse.

    And what of the playing? The playing is marvelous. Scott Ross was a supremely talented artist and the music world is poorer for having lost him at the terribly young age of 38. Thankfully he left behind this monumental achievement. (And apparently a pretty good batch of other recordings.) His technique is totally assured, his insights clear and profound. There is, at times, almost a sense of giddiness. All of these works were recorded in a little over a year and one can sense the thrill of discovery. See what I mean about monumental. The recorded sound can be a bit bright sometimes, and some extra-musical noise makes it in as well (airplanes, talking, etc), but overall the sound is excellent. This set is truly special and will hold an exalted position in my collection. It was worth every penny and then some.

    To conclude, I’ll throw in my opinion here that after listening to all of these works it seems absolutely certain that these 555 gems were written over the course of many years. There is a general improvement in quality as one approaches the last works and the styles change over time. There are also groups of sonatas that were clearly written close together. I know there have been some who said that Scarlatti wrote these all quite quickly. If that were the case he would be the greatest composer who ever lived. As is it is, he is in the company of the greatest composers in history.

    The Highlights

    Kk 16 – a nice, humorous, almost (pre-) Haydn-esque opening. Sprightly and danceable.

    Kk 20 – Jaunty, upbeat piece, with nifty flourishes and figurations. The harpsichord really benefits this one by allowing one to hear so clearly the different goings-on with each hand.

    Kk 24 – Relatively “big” in conception, with nice if simple tunes and clear textures.

    Kk 33 – Rollicking, with dense writing. On piano this becomes clearer and more forcefully direct, but on harpsichord it sounds richer.

    Kk 40 – Very simple (I might even be able to learn to play it! Nah.), direct, a bit more somber than many, it holds the listener’s attention.

    Kk 53 – Robust, vigorous, with rythmic vitality and verve to spare.

    Kk 54 – Strictly structured, almost sounding as though Scarlatti were inspired by the organ, yet still vibrant.

    Kk 70 – Insistent lower register first anticipates and imitates then simply accompanies right hand figurations and melodies for a tightly woven little ditty.

    Kk 82 – Long trills and delicious staccato-laden rhythm from the left hand with some brilliant ornamentation thrown in.

    Kk 95 – Opens fast ‘n’ furious, with nifty right hand playing over an a continuously repeated left hand figurations moving up and down the keyboard. Just over a minute of fun.

    Kk 96 – A kick-ass sonata that sounds splendid on piano (Pletnev’s is a knockout) or harpsichord. (I find myself humming the main recurring theme spontaneously at times.) Ross plays with typical incisiveness and rhythmic drive. Sounds more serious here than Pletnev, but still fun.

    Kk 100 – Charming, buoyant, danceable – Scarlatti at his most enjoyable.

    Kk 101 – Perhaps less danceable than its immediate predecessor, but more of the same otherwise.

    Kk 105 – Catchy and irresistible.

    Kk 109 – The distinct, strongly characterized plucking at the outset is remarkable – how does Ross do it? It sounds almost like a lute or guitar at times. Amazing. This slow sonata sounds lovely and perhaps just a tad on the sad side.

    Kk 113 – Bold rhythm, direct and simple melodies, insistent playing.

    Kk 116 – Slow opening with swift, bouyant passages after. Typical Scarlatti fun.

    Kk 118 – Less insistent and driven than many, this is purely charming and light. Pretty.

    Kk 132 – Another slow, beautiful sonata that captivates with its relatively simplicity and clarity.

    Kk 135 – Another full, rich sounding piece that sounds as good on piano.

    Kk 139 – The quick, forward momentum, repeated figurations, ascending chord progressions and Ross’ virtuosic playing all make for a sonc feast.

    Kk 141 – Almost aggressive opening that transitions into fast, insistent, rather unrelenting work.

    Kk 146 – Another better known (or at least more recorded) sonata that, by way of its clear textures, repeated lovely tunes and patterns, makes for an unmistakably fun listen.

    Kk 148 – Another sonata where the plucking sound itself becomes an attraction. It almost sounds as though two different instruments are playing at times, and Scarlatti shows that was a master of slow as well as fast works.

    Kk 159 – Another swift, fun ride.

    Kk 164 – More of that potent strumming goodness, with a nice variation in tone and speed, though it is mostly slow.

    Kk 173 –This work sounds almost “classical” in its dimensions – Mozart, or at least an Italian composer living in the latter half of the 18th Century could have written it. Scarlatti uses his same devise, but the style is less dance-like and more formal. Spiffy.

    Kk 180 – Driven, energetic work played aggressively by Ross.

    Kk 181 – A perfect complement to 180; lighter, less intense, more fun.

    Kk 191 – A bit more worked out, like slightly edgy Bach.

    Kk 192 – Some pretty spiffy and attractive contrapuntal writing and beautiful figurations. A delight.

    Kk 194 – On a warm, lovely sounding instrument, the repeated themes and scales conspire to create a work of notable beauty and poise.

    Kk 204a & 204b – The first sonata sounds almost classical again, and has some unanticipated shifts that seem to anticipate Haydn. Somewhat dramatic and showy, but not dark and not extravagant. Second sonata is more in the standard Scarlatti style, though a bit slow. Ross offers hypnotic playing of the bass line.

    Kk 211 – Another simple, attractive sonata that because of its very simplicity is all the more attractive.

    Kk 215 – Sounds almost outside the scope of the harpsichord; some of the writing seems better suited to piano. Ross attacks some chords with notable power, but never overdoes it. The piece will then revert back to slower, more intricate writing. That twangy high-register writing seems to be relegated to the back and a richer palette adopted. Perhaps a little too “formal,” especially given Scarlatti’s penchant for free invention, but captivating all the same.

    Kk 216 – The perfect foil to 215, with much dazzling yet intricate and dense writing that Ross dispatches effortlessly.

    Kk 233 – Is there a hint of melancholy and seriousness of purpose lurking behind the glittering façade? I think so.

    Kk 237 – Another dense, intricate sonata with some ear-catchin’ trills over a rock solid left hand base and filled. Ross is amazingly precise.

    Kk 251 – Relatively simple, almost waltz-like feel plus what sounds like a bit of subversive humor from both composer and performer make this hard to resist.

    Kk 253 – The dense right hand figurations over the simple, repeated left hand chords for extended stretches sounds almost like an early, condensed Minimialism, only better, and they’re interrupted by some other interesting ideas.

    Kk 261 – Sunny, bright, with dazzling writing and nifty, chirpy arpeggios in the first section and insistent rhythm from the repeated bass line in the second. A gem.

    Kk 264 – More dramatic and “bigger” yet relatively simple.

    Kk 268 – A nice, old-fashioned dance piece – that works on piano too – with Ross delivering the right rhythmic support.

    Kk 270 – One of the most charming sonatas I’ve heard, simple in structure, yet unreservedly sunny and plucky.

    Kk 292 – The repeated patterns become entrancing and Ross is meticulous.

    Kk 293 – A solid, almost Bachian work, with little in the way of ornamentation. A stripped down Portugal Suite, if you will.

    Kk 294 – Descending scales, simple repeated themes, and crystalline clarity make this a winner.

    Kk 296 – A soft or at least softly played piece, with strumming bass underpinning beautiful melodies.

    Kk 298 – A fun romp, with a stuttering effect played with disarming precision and dazzling yet not overdone virtuosity by Ross. Seems almost like perfect encore material.

    Kk 303 – Chirpy little trills and repetitive structure make for a suprisingly interesting listen.

    Kk 330 – Relatively simple, repetitive, rythmic piece that capitvates because of those very traits.

    Kk 331 – Another simple, but this time slow and deliberate piece that offers a perfect contrast.

    Kk 335 – More of that pluckin’ and strummin’ that I like so much, coupled to a slow-ish, almost proto-romantic feel makes for a lovely work.

    Kk 339 – Clear and bright, with some nofty flourishes and ornaments, it’s quite the delight.

    Kk 345 – The rising left-hand scales over a simple, repeated right hand figuration alternating with more typical Scarlatti writing all combined in a more formally structured than normal work is a wonder to hear.

    Kk 348 – Sorta like a Bach prelude on speed.

    Kk 356 – Numerous trills deployed to ornament a very simple yet enjoyable, almost childish (in the best possible sense of the word) work.

    Kk 366 – Insistent ostinato bass line supporting right hand figurations and intriguing chords that sound as though they were inspired by some rustic (even in the 18th Century) dance.

    Kk 368 – Motoric drive and plenty o’ Scarlatti playfulness intermixed with some slower playing.

    Kk 375 – Irresistible rhythmic drive and sunny nature.

    Kk 380 – A fine sonata, as good on piano, with rich chords underpinning the whole thing. Ross is a bit restrained.

    Kk 387 – Quick, flashy, vibrant.

    Kk 391 – More lute-esque plucking in a delicate, meticulous piece. Ross varies his tone and dynamics just so.

    Kk 394 – Typically inventive, energetic work, but the flourishes in the middle section are just amazing, and the subsequent drive through to the end is thrilling.

    Kk 398 – Little, charming piece. Delicate. One can envision this piece being used as a dance interlude in a child’s play. I mean that as praise.

    Kk 414 – Straightforward and energetic.

    Kk 416 – More of the same.

    Kk 420 – Proof that a harpsichord can provide a bit of weight if pushed. Fortunately there’s more: the heavy chords serve to underpin more dazzling writing.

    Kk 427 – Sunny, almost dizzyingly fast and driven work! I’ve got to hear this on piano.

    Kk 432 – Almost perpetuo moto feel married to reasonably rich harpsichord and big scale writing.

    Kk 435 – The epitome of Scarlatti’s style? Well, the buoyant, rhythmically snappy music and relatively simple but effective ornamentation and sunny disposition all point to a possible yes.

    Kk 436 – Built on repeated chords and patterns, and possessed of delicious forward drive, this is pretty snazzy.

    Kk 438 – More of the same.

    Kk 441 – Uses repeated figurations and a catchy, snappy, simple bass line to force one to pay undivided attention. Puts a smile on one’s face.

    Kk 443 – Another one that seems to be unassailable on piano and harpsichord, but the harpsichord creates a richer texture. Still fun and sweet.

    Kk 453 – Slow piece with that delightful plucking sound, and an insisitent, slow dance feel. (A soporific saraband, perhaps?)

    Kk 474 – Like so many high-energy, quick, dazzling and upbeat sonatas from before – just more refined.

    Kk 475 – Rich, layered proto-classical piece. Good stuff.

    Kk 477 – More diverse than many earlier sonatas. Dense textures, repeated chords, layered trills, basic rhythmic patterns used and recycled continuously form an irresistible sonata.

    Kk 478 – A slow-ish open gives way to a more rigorous piece. Repeat. Cool.

    Kk 487 – “Busy” work with such dense writing it almost sounds like a four-hands harpsichord work at times. Ross is meticulous.

    Kk 488 – Clear, contrapuntal (or contrapuntal sounding) writing makes for a refreshing change of pace.

    Kk 490 – Not much of a dance piece, but lovely melodies and insistent chords and proto-classical (or at least boundary-pushing baroque) sound is quite captivating.

    Kk 491 – More of the same, and the carefully crafted arpeggios and repetitive themes sound like something maybe (a young) Mozart may have written. Definitely shows its dance inspiration, and some nifty would-be horn calls hidden in there. A most remarkable sonata.

    Kk 502 – It’s hard to say that there’s anything new when compared to what came before, but everything fits together in such a masterly way, and the piece is imbued with such rhythmic brio and charm, that one can’t resist its charms.

    Kk 506 – The descending then ascending scales followed by all the charming yet reasonably discreet ornamentation is fun to hear and Ross’ control is exemplary.

    Kk 507 – Standard Scarlatti open with nice, slow, contrapuntal slow section for diversity.

    Kk 513 – Opening (and repeated) five note figure (well, four note figure and the first note of the subsequent figure) that presages the Andante theme to Mozart’s K331 sonata is quite delightful to hear in the relaxed opening, and the more vigorous second section is eminently danceable and thoroughly enjoyable.

    Kk 517 – Another Bachian prelude on speed.

    Kk 519 – Beautiful melodies, catchy bass lines, dazzling trills, rhythmic staccato-laden passages; yep, this one done got it all.

    Kk 523 – Energetic, with nifty descending figures.

    Kk 526 – Insistent, driven piece has a simple, motoric sound that could almost suit some early rock if played on piano.

    Kk 527 – Dazzling showpiece with addictive flourishes and catchy melodies.

    Kk 541 – Obviously dance inspired, and filled with all the ornaments and dazzling tricks that Scarlatti can muster. A masterwork, to be sure.

    Kk 543 – More abstract than 541, I suppose, but still more of the same. The level of composition is uniformly very high at this point.

    Kk 544 – Slow, methodical, and lovely.

    Kk 545 – Quicker, more exciting, with a rockin’ bass line.

    Kk 547 – 544 redux.

    Kk 549 – An amazing piece surpassing even 543. (Well, okay, it’s as good but in different ways.).

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