Sunday, October 29, 2017

Several Cheers for Scarlatti

Over at the excellent music blog Slugging a Vampire we find a recent post celebrating the three hundred and thirty-second birthday of Domenico Scarlatti, much beloved by guitarists even though he didn't write a single note of guitar music. The reason is that Sr. Scarlatti was for the last few decades of his life in the employ of the Spanish royal court, where, as far as we know, he wrote all the music he is renowned for. These are a remarkable five hundred and fifty-five keyboard sonatas and there is a pretty clear influence of the guitar. Reading over the Wikipedia article on Scarlatti, I just learned that his house in Madrid where he passed away, was on Calle Leganitos where I rented an apartment last May! Apparently there is a plaque, but even though I walked the length of the street lots of times, I missed it.

Only one artist has actually recorded all of these sonatas, the very gifted harpsichordist Scott Ross, who passed away tragically young. This is him playing the Sonata K. 27 in B minor:

Here is guitarist John Williams playing my favorite sonata, K. 213 in D minor:

Composer/guitarist Leo Brouwer has recorded some of the most creative performances of Scarlatti sonatas. This is K. 206 in E major:

Going back to the keyboard, here is a very zippy performance of K. 141 in D minor by Martha Argerich:

And finally, returning to the harpsichord, this is Gustav Leonhardt with K. 227:

As Steven mentions in his blog post, Scarlatti, while greatly admired by both composers and performers, does not fit easily into the standard narrative. His musical imagination and style lies rather out of the mainstream, partaking of both Baroque and Classical elements without being firmly in either camp. As one writer noted in passing, Scarlatti was perfectly capable of inventing Classical style in a sonata or two, and then putting it aside to do something else! As W. Dean Sutcliffe mentions in his book (linked to by Steven), the critical landscape regarding Scarlatti is a vacant one. To put it bluntly, almost no work has been done in the critical appraisal and examination of Scarlatti's music.

But we can still enjoy it!


David said...

Bryan, just a quick technical correction Dutch harpsichordist Pieter-Jan Belder has also recorded the complete sonatas available in a box on the Brilliant Classics label. I think this project was completed some years after Ross'. Belder's project features a number of different harpsichords (and I think maybe even a fortepiano or two). I agree that the collection is a rich mine of musical brilliance and enjoyment.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are so right, David! I was just checking and it seems there are complete collections by Richard Lester and Zuzana Ruzickov√° as well! But I have the Scott Ross on my shelf.

Steven Watson said...

If I may put a word in for the Andreas Staier recordings. The least reserved, the least genteel -- I sometimes find other recordings too dull now.

(And thank you for the shout out!)

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, some fine Scarlatti from Andreas Staier!

You're welcome.

Will Wilkin said...

My favorite Scarlatti has always been Alessandro, father of Domenico. I love his sweet vocal music. He supposedly composed over 500 cantatas! The few I've heard are among my favorite music ever. And his Mass for Saint Cecilia (Patron Saint of Musicians) is rightly in the repertoire.

The Domenico sonatas for harpsichord are very enjoyable, and I've been told many require great virtuosity to play. I recall reading in some concert program notes that he pretty much improvised a lot of them and then went back and wrote them down.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know, I have never listened to much by Alessandro Scarlatti! Sounds like I should.

Will Wilkin said...

Back in the mid-1980s I heard some recitals by guitarist Elliot Fisk, and bought some of his records, including some of his own transcriptions for guitar of baroque music written for other instruments. At edges of my memory I think I read in program notes that he trained at Yale under the founder of the guitar program at YSM who had created a repertoire by transcribing harpsichord music, being suitable due to both sounding by plucking strings.

Regarding Alessandro Scarlatti, if you like baroque opera (a special love of mine) then you will love his cantatas. His vocal music sounds to me like the bridge between Monteverdi and Handel.

Bryan Townsend said...

I met Elliot Fisk at Pepe Romero's masterclass in Salzburg in the 80s. He has now taken over that class.