Saturday, July 12, 2014

Retro Record Review #4: Scott Ross plays Scarlatti

This is an occasional feature at The Music Salon where I do one of my idiosyncratic reviews of what I consider to be an interesting recording. The first two were devoted to two albums by the Beatles, Rubber Soul and Revolver. The third review was devoted to an album by the Romanian gypsy group Taraf de Ha├»douks.

This review I am devoting to a remarkable, perhaps unprecedented, recording by the harpsichordist Scott Ross. He was born in Pittsburgh, but after the death of his father, he and his mother moved to Nice where he studied harpsichord at the Conservatoire. He had some unique challenges in his life: as a child he had severe scoliosis and his mother committed suicide when he was seventeen. At twenty he won first prize in the Concours de Bruges and later studied with Kenneth Gilbert. For a decade he taught at Laval University in Quebec where he also made a complete recording of the harpsichord music of Rameau when he was only twenty-five. Soon he would also record the complete Couperin. Neither of these is currently available. He also recorded quite a lot of Bach. But his magnum opus was to record the complete sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, a much larger project as he wrote no less than five hundred and fifty-five sonatas. He began the sessions in June of 1984 and finished in September of 1985. Tragically, he died of AIDS-related pneumonia a few years later in 1989, only thirty-eight years old.

This is a retro record review because the discs were originally released in 1985 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Scarlatti. But it is also a new album review because the whole collection, 34 CDs, was just re-released by Erato and Warner Classics:

Yes, Scott Ross is wearing a leather motorcycle jacket in the photo. This was not in an attempt to be hip for the photo session--he always dressed unconventionally, for a classical musician at least. In one particularly high-profile concert at Laval, attended by the university chancellor and the French Consul General, he wore jeans and a red logger shirt. He is wearing something similar on the cover of his Bach Goldberg Variations album:

I'm getting just slightly ahead of myself because I haven't finished listening to all five hundred and fifty-five sonatas yet. I'm only up to K. 125, though I have browsed some of the later ones. But I do have a sense of the recording.

This is an excellently produced recording with 34 CDs in paper wallets in a sturdy box. There is a brief booklet included with an interview with Scott Ross. But for full notes you need to go to Warner Classics online where there is a special page devoted to this recording. Here is where you can download a nearly fifty page booklet with detailed notes on the music.

UPDATE: My mistake, the notes are actually 123 pages including the incipits to the score of each piece. I just started looking at them.

So what about the recording? Scott Ross is one of the greatest harpsichordists of the 20th century. The only other that would seem to equal his formidable technical and musical gifts would be Gustav Leonhardt. These recordings were made on four different harpsichords, one Italian and three different copies of a French Blanchet harpsichord. They all sound quite different. The harpsichord has some limitations which led to the development of the piano: it cannot do dynamics, nor accents. However, it is quite evident listening to either Leonhardt or Ross, that there is a way of doing accents on the harpsichord. I'm not sure how, perhaps it involves throwing the jack through the string at a certain velocity. Here is an article on the harpsichord if you want to look into how it works.

In any case, this is a wonderfully resonant and lovely recorded sound. Sometimes the harpsichord can sound rather harsh in recordings, but not here. As for interpretations, Scott Ross is a spectacular performer of Scarlatti. He has a unique quality that works well in the energetic sonatas--the majority--this is a kind of springy rhythmic intensity, a way of handling the pulse that makes it feel almost like being on a trampoline. Call it a super-groove and you wouldn't be far wrong.

I won't talk about the sonatas in detail, look to the booklet for that. I have written a lot about Scarlatti before, just search this blog. He was astonishingly inventive working within the boundaries of short (usually 2 to 6 minutes) pieces in binary form. There are a myriad of textures and structural layouts in these pieces. I believe it was Charles Rosen who commented that Scarlatti was the kind of composer who could have invented sonata form and then tossed it away as he went on to other things.

Let's have a listen to some samples. Here is the whole disc of the last sixteen sonatas:

Here is a sampler of some of the most outstanding sonatas:

And here is one with particularly "crunchy" accents, K. 141:

Better hurry over to Amazon and order your box as they only have nine left...


Rickard Dahl said...

I haven't really paid much attention to Scarlatti but his music is actually amazing (something I easily notice when listening to the samples posted here). Heh, a good listening project would be to listen to all the sonatas by Scarlatti. The recordings by Scott Ross seem really great. Since I have a re-exam in semiconductor physics in a little more than a month, I will be doing quite much listening. Maybe it's a good idea to buy that box set.

Bryan Townsend said...

I was hoping to turn someone on to Scarlatti!!

I have been playing Scarlatti for a few decades as some of the best sonatas have long been transcribed and performed on guitar. The folk music of Spain is a particularly noticeable influence on the sonatas, so some of them are very appropriate on guitar. Others are completely impossible, technically. Maybe I will even get to playing a couple on piano if my technique gets that far. It is quite an odd sensation, for me at least, playing a piece on piano that I have previously played on guitar.

Rickard Dahl said...

Decided to place the order today. Will receive the CD set at beginning of next week.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's great! Scarlatti is like a course in creativity. I am up to disc 14 out of 34, so almost halfway through. The first couple of discs are particularly good as they comprise the 30 pieces that were published in his lifetime. But there are a couple of discs where it gets a bit boring--I'm thinking of CDs five and six. But then things get much more interesting again. There are a lot of excellent sonatas in the 100s and the 200s have some of the very best ones.


Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, and be sure to download the lengthy notes from the Warner Classics site.