Sunday, March 25, 2007

Music: An Introduction to the Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti

The leading classical music label, Naxos, undertook recording the complete keyboard sonatas of Italian Baroque composer Domenico Scarlatti beginning with the release of Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1 (Eteri Andjaparidze, piano) in 1999. Since then, seven more of a projected 35 volumes have been released. This piano music is easily accessible and enjoyable by listeners of all levels. As an introduction to a series of reviews of the Naxos releases in this collection, I wanted to provide a brief introduction to Scarlatti and the modern interpretations of his music.

Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti (October 26, 1685 – July 23, 1757) was born in Naples, the sixth of ten children of Baroque composer Alessandro Scarlatti and Antonia Anzalone. While sharing a birth year with two other notable Baroque composers, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel, Scarlatti’s unique compositional vision rested on the apex of the Baroque period giving way to the Classical period.

Scarlatti was thought to have had is early training at the hand of his famous father. During his early life into his adulthood, Scarlatti traveled widely, spending time in Florence, where he met keyboard maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, who was then experimenting with transforming keyboard playing from the plucked-action harpsichord to the hammer action of his gravicembalo col piano e forte. He visited Rome and then Venice, where Scarlatti met the famous castratos Nicolo Grimaldi and Farinelli (Carlo Broschi) (the latter who has provided through his letters the lion’s share of what is known about Scarlatti’s adult life) and also made the acquaintances of composers Gasparini, Vivaldi, and Handel.

This meeting with Handel was fortuitous as it led to a later anecdotal meeting of the two musicians resulting in a "contest of virtuosity" where Handel was to have bested Scarlatti at the organ while Scarlatti bested Handel on the harpsichord. Whether spurious or true, the story makes for great drama and the consideration of such a concentration of genius in Venice in the 18th Century.

Scarlatti distinguished himself in a variety of compositional vehicles including opera, oratorio, and sacred, having held several notable positions in Spain and Portugal. But what Scarlatti is most prominently remembered for are 555 short sonatas for keyboard written originally as Essercizi ("Exercises"). When he died in Madrid July 23, 1757, Scarlatti left a treasury of his harpsichord sonatas manuscripts, which were largely unplayed beyond Spain and Portugal until pianist Carl Czerny published a selection of the sonatas in 1839. Publication of an ostensibly complete set of sonatas was made by Alessandro Longo (designated with “L” numbers), who provided the first systematic numbering of the sonatas in 1906. Ralph Kirkpatrick added to and reorganized the sonatas (designated with “K” numbers) in a 1953 critical edition considered de rigueur for Scarlatti performance. In 1967, Giorgio Pestelli published the most recent accepted edition of the sonatas using the “P” numbering system.

The majority of Scarlatti’s 555 sonatas were envisioned in pairs with one sonata in minor key and its partner in the corresponding major key, but both of the pair always sharing the tonic. Beyond this tonal relationship, these sonata pairs existed dynamically in contrast or complement. Sonata pairs with a complementary association may share stylistic agreement or harmonic palette. Those pairs that contrast one another may do so in tempi or compositional complexity. The result is an almost inexhaustible collection of keyboard pieces, all of high artistic quality and accessibility.

This almost inexhaustible assembly of music becomes infinitely inexhaustible when considering recorded performances. Scarlatti has received much attention since the 1940s when master harpsichordist Wanda Landowska recorded her landmark collections. Landowska, who was uncompromising with her Bach (Landowska to Pablo Casals: “You play Bach your way, and I'll play Bach his way”) certainly took her liberties with Scarlatti. Nevertheless, her Angel recording is uniformly fine displaying not only Landowska’s iconoclastic streak, but also mid-Twentieth Century Scarlatti thinking. Other recorded Scarlatti using a harpsichord was recorded most notably by Ralph Kirkpatrick, whose ‘50s era critical edition is still widely referenced. Kirkpatrick’s playing is faithful and his Archiv disc beautifully captured. Scott Ross recorded all 555 sonatas on harpsichord and organ on 34 discs, originally for Erato, but now available on Warner Classics. Ross has staying power. Pieter-Jan Belder is currently working on a complete set for Brilliant Classics, performed on both harpsichord and piano, which he is recording in Kirkpatrick numerical order and is currently at Volume IX, a three-disc set (ending with the K427 G major sonata).

A revolution akin to that detonated by Glenn Gould’s 1955 piano recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (Sony) occurred with Vladimir Horowitz’s 1964 recording Horowitz Plays Scarlatti (Sony), which effectively put Scarlatti on the map in the Twentieth Century. For the Scarlatti novice, this Horowitz is the place to start. In spite of the pianist’s reputation for being a high Romantic, Horowitz had a great affinity for Bach, Scarlatti, Clementi (another favored Horowitz composer), Haydn, and Mozart. The playing, for sure, is Vladimir Horowitz, and aside from a booming left hand, he is more faithful to Scarlatti than Landowska. Other notable piano performances of Scarlatti Sonatas include Andras Schiff’s tastefully middle-of-the-road Decca recording, Mikhail Pletnev delightful two-disc Virgin set, Ivo Pogorelich’s densely enigmatic – and enjoyable Deutsche Grammophon recording, and Yevgeny Sudbin’s recent BIS set. All offer a universe of Scarlatti interpretation, some beyond reproach, some controversial, but all excellent because the original composition is excellent. So now we welcome the Naxos series into the fold, using different pianists for each set and offering the recordings a cost where owning the entire set is affordable.

Next: Scarlatti: Complete Keyboard Sonatas, Vol. 1, Eteri Andjaparidze, piano.

This review was first published in

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2007