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 Scarlattis 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. Scarlattis sonatas are best served overall by a harpsichord. His compositions are to the harpsichord what Chopins 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! Dont. Now Ive 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. Ive 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, Ill 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 listeners 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 (Pletnevs 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 Scarlattis 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 theyre 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 Ive 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, its 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 childs 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 theres more: the heavy chords serve to underpin more dazzling writing. Kk 427 Sunny, almost dizzyingly fast and driven work! Ive 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 Scarlattis 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 ones 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 Its hard to say that theres 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 cant 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 Mozarts 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, its as good but in different ways.).