Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Scarlatti K 213 - Some Comparisons

Something I haven't done for quite a while is compare different performances of the same piece of music. It can be very illuminating. About a year ago I did a fairly lengthy post comparing Nigel Kennedy's Bach with other performers. This was sparked by an interview Kennedy did in which he was rather disparaging of other people's Bach. Turns out that this, like so much else in the popular press, was mostly about self-promotion.

This time I'm inspired to look at different performances of a Scarlatti sonata simply because I'm learning it. This has pretty much been my standard modus operandi ever since I have been a performer. I'm curious to see what others have done with the piece. Sometimes I avoid hearing other versions until I have made some headway myself and then I am often surprised at what seems to be the standard interpretation.

Interpretations within a community of players can take on a life of their own. Everyone is copying aspects of the way everyone else plays the piece. I became aware of this after a concert once when a friend of mine, a composer, pointed out to me that I was completely ignoring some glissandi in the score. This was in the Prelude No. 4 by Villa-Lobos, a score he had studied when he was writing music for guitar. Of course he was correct! I, and pretty much everyone else, was simply ignoring some clearly indicated glissandi in the melodic line.

I first heard the sonata, K. 213 by Domenico Scarlatti in a wonderful vinyl recording by John Williams dating, I believe, from the mid-70s. One side was the Five Preludes by Villa-Lobos and the other was five sonatas by Scarlatti. Guitarists have been raiding the Scarlatti sonatas for a long time, starting with Segovia. Many of them are very effective on guitar as they often have a Spanish flavor and the textures are frequently spare enough to be able to be transcribed to guitar without much change. Here is a link to the score for keyboard. One of the most respected harpsichordists and the first one to record all 555 sonatas by Scarlatti was Scott Ross (who sadly, died young at age 38). They were recorded over an eighteen month period in 1984/85. Here is a selection. K. 213 starts exactly at the 9:00 mark:

Here is Dmitri Levkovich, a young Ukrainian pianist now living in Canada in a recent competition performance:

Another performance by the Dutch harpsichordist Gerard van Reenen:

Now for some guitar versions. Here is André Madeira:

Angelito Agcaoili in a concert performance:

And finally, John Williams:

This is, like quite a number of sonatas by Scarlatti, fundamentally a fairly simple piece. But it is amazing how individual each sonata is. Scarlatti is much-loved by composers because his music is such a beautiful example of pure invention. You really don't have to fuss around with it a lot in performance. This is not Schumann nor Brahms and milking every note for its romantic possibility is not the best approach. On the other hand, a little inspired connection, such as Scott Ross inserts leading into the repeat of the first half, works just fine. Scott Ross offers the best model of how Scarlatti should be played. Gustav Leonhardt does some very fine Scarlatti as well, but I don't think he recorded this particular sonata.

The version on piano by Levkovich is quite fine, but perhaps over-sensitive. Scarlatti should always have a bit of a gritty feel in my opinion, something the harpsichord provides naturally. So can the guitar, which is why they often work well on guitar. What about the three guitar performances? They all work, but they all seem to be making the same mistake: constantly fiddling with the tempo. Yes, even John Williams, whose second phrase is quite substantially rushed. His version is the best on guitar, of course, and most of it is excellent. But the wandering tempo of the beginning puts me off. Why is it that all the guitarists have trouble controlling the tempo and none of the keyboardists do?


cloudpine said...

Great post, thankyou. Great to hear these approaches. The Levkovich is fine yet with Scarlatti I keep revisiting Wendy Carlos's K491, sorry I couldn't Youtube it. There's a force with her timings, but real feeling there. When I want to hear Bach I like Wendy's versions too. I wonder what your opinion of her work is, I think Beauty In The Beast is a great piece.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, cloudpine! The very first Bach record I ever bought was Walter Carlos' Switched on Bach, back in the early 70s. Based on your recommendation, I will seek out Wendy Carlos' more recent Bach!

cloudpine said...

I forgot to thank you for your posts, so well put together and so many great observations. My understanding of music is very lay and you make it easy to get to with the examples. Much appreciated!

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks so much! Please keep making comments, it really contributes to the blog.

vp said...

An amazing piece of music. I couldn't disagree with you more on its interepretation -- Scarlatti's sonatas have a Bach-like indestructibility to them, and I like some of the most "romantic" interpretations the most. Pletnev's is one of my favorites -- I can't find it on youtube, but you can preview it on Amazon here (indeed the whole album is a piece of brilliance):


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, vp. You know, I always appreciate it when people disagree with me! I will go have a listen to Pletnev. If someone has a powerfully romantic interpretation and really sells it, what could be wrong with that? I love anyone that really has some fresh ideas...