Scarlatti Set Reissue: History

Domenico Scarlatti - The complete Keyboard Sonatas

Scott Ross - harpsichord.

Recorded 1984-1985 at Studios of Radio France. 
Warner Classics 2564 62092-2

"Vivi Felice." This inscription occurs at the end of the only set of Harpsichord Sonatas by the great Domenico Scarlatti that was published in his lifetime - a group of 30 works issued in London. Of the bulk of the 555 recognised sonatas, nothing further was known until the 20th century, save for a few arrangements for ensemble by Thomas Rosengrave and Charles Avison, both of whom thought nothing of promoting Scarlatti's music in England by making substantial alterations to what the composer had written and adding a fair amount of themselves.. The complete recording of the sonatas by Scott Ross, now re-issued in a box set of 34 CDs by Warner Classics makes a particularly poignant connection with this inscription, Live happily, as Scott Ross himself died of an Aids-related condition less than two years after these recordings were first issued. Brilliant and mercurial, Ross had come to prominence in 1971 when, on his first attempt, he won the highly prestigious Bruges Internati onal Early Music Competition. This annual festival of talent changes its emphasis from year to year, one year being an harpsichord competition, the next chamber music, another year, recorder, and so on. This tends to heighten the tension for prospective competitors in any given field, as the next time around they may be too old; or so goes the fear. Irrespective of any of this, when Scott Ross won the first prize, his performances so astounded the judges, critics and audiences alike that no first prize in the harpsichord competitions was awarded again until 1983, when it was won by Christoph Rousset, curiously, another French-trained (and, in his case, indeed, French) harpsichordist. And yet this was almost just luck for the world. By his own recollection, Ross had determined that he would enter the Bruges competition to win it. If he didn't, he had vowed to give up professional music and become a landscape gardener. Indeed, friends of Ross well remember his talent for growi ng and breeding orchids and his home at Assas in France was surrounded by the results of his own horticultural experiments when he died there. Fortunately for the musical world, his vow did not have to come to fruition as he did win the Bruges competition and from there on dazzled the world for a too short time.

Fortunately Scott Ross was as at home in the recording studio as on the concert platform and left a substantial legacy of recorded music including complete cycles of the Harpsichord music of both Couperin and Rameau. However, it is for the Scarlatti edition that he will always be best remembered, for this monumental project was not only a first, but also will probably remain unique for a considerable length of time. Given the panic stories which we constantly read about the classical music recording industry being in a state of meltdown, and noting Bill Gates' recently expounded opinions that the CD and DVD are doomed as iPods and their like take over; and in a period when every performer one hears on the radio is launching their own-brand label, the ability to undertake a project of recordings on the sort of scale that this Scarlatti represents is becoming less and less easy to imagine. In the great days of the mid-80's, with digital technology revolutionising the recording and editing process, and with people like the present writer off-loading LPs to replace previously acquired recordings with the CD version, Erato (the original label) and Radio France had the confidence to commit time, resources and, most importantly, money to a project on this scale. Seen like this, the recordings are very much a product of their particular time of conception and creation and this is an aspect of which Scott Ross would probably have approved. His idea was not just to record the Scarlatti sonatas for the sheer love of the music - although this was the paramount consideration, and, according to Ross himself (interviewed in 1986) involved far greater enjoyment than either the Couperin or Rameau complete recordings - but he was also well aware of the likelihood that this set of recordings would be unique and therefore that there was an important aspect of musicological reference in the creation of this cycle. Scarlatti, for all his fame as a name in history boo ks, much of it centred on being born in the same year, 1685, as both J. S. Bach and Handel, was still a composer whose works were essentially unknown. Of course, there had been recordings before, although only of small selections. Wanda Landowska made recordings in the 1940s on what then passed for a harpsichord (a nine foot monster made specially for her by the French piano makers Pleyel and having a metal frame, vast string lengths and an array of sustaining pedals and such like) and Vladimir Horowitz recorded a number of the sonatas in versions that have been the benchmark in piano performances of the sonatas until very recent times, with the advent of recorded selections by Angela Hewitt and Mikhail Pletnov. However, none of these was on an instrument such as Scarlatti might have played, and none, most importantly, was complete.

So why is it so important that the music of Scarlatti should be recorded anyway? Scarlatti is a particularly interesting figure in baroque music; an area of history already stuffed with interesting figures - from Stradella being murdered in the street, to Marin Marais hiding under a reluctant teacher's garden shed to hear the master practice; from the protestant Bach's 22 children to the Catholic priest Vivaldi shacking up with his nurse, to Handel dangling sopranos out of the window and Jean-Marie Leclair also getting murdered (in his case by a jealous rival violinist) - Scarlatti gave up a hugely successful career as an opera composer and interpreter in his native Italy to emigrate at the age of 50 to Portugal, there to compose nothing other than tiny harpsichord miniatures for the rest of his days. It seems such an odd move, exacerbated by the apparent lack of interest in promoting these very works in any way, even to the extent of writing them down. Of the 555 known sonat as, not a single one exists in Scarlatti's hand, and, indeed, Scott Ross came to the conclusion that what we have as this most wonderful corpus of harpsichord music, is nothing less than the improvised outpourings of a genius seated briefly at his instrument. It is more than likely that there are no Scarlatti autograph manuscripts because he never wrote the works down. The idea that they were all written as teaching pieces for Scarlatti's patroness, the Portuguese princess Maria Barbara, later the Queen of Spain, fits less and less happily with what little we do know of Scarlatti's temperament and practices. Scott Ross surmised that it was as likely that Scarlatti consented to let the Spanish Royal Court copyists write selected sonatas down (for the surviving manuscripts are largely in such hands, and bound in volumes from the Royal Libraries) in return for the Queen paying off considerable gambling debts. Indeed, everything points to the sonatas being created in bursts of a ctivity, followed by much longer periods of silence. As such, what we have can be viewed as "first drafts"; the raw sketches of ideas thrown out in improvisation. Certainly there is very little notable about the structure of these works; almost invariably they take the form of a binary structure, with each section intended to be repeated, and with the first section modulating to the dominant. Scarlatti seemed to have no interest in creating any form of development of structural forms - work that would have necessitated prolonged developmental activity - but excels in the rapid juxtaposition of constant strings of ideas. He is also the master of the startling unprepared modulation. These are all clear hallmarks of the improvisatory style. What is so amazing is that, if, as Ross surmised, we are looking at raw draft material, it is so complete, and so perfect both in conception and in execution. One finds it hard to imagine even Couperin's sketch material being anything nearl y so satisfying. The reason the Scarlatti sonatas are so significant is that they appear to represent in almost the purest form the "white heat" of creativity; here we come close to seeing the very mind of the genius at work.

Scott Ross recognised these traits in Scarlatti's (at that time) still unappreciated compositions. His own personality and temperament suited him to Scarlatti's music - even his name "Ross" can be seen as being indicative of the red fiery temperament suggested by the eponymous "Scarlatti". Ross's technical accomplishments were second to none in the harpsichord world, but he affected that air of studied nonchalance that Scarlatti would have appreciated, doing nothing to deny the oft-stated belief that he did not practise. In reality, by his own admission, he "used to practise at night, almost in secret" but, having lost both parents at a relatively young age, had to earn a living by day. However, he always had that feeling of spontaneity in performance and indeed, although the project to record the 555 sonatas took two years, with this number of works that represents a very quick recording process. Ross claimed that this was note only due to the upcoming 300th anniversary of S carlatti's birth in 1985, but also to stay in the spirit of Scarlatti. This reference to the "spirit" of the music is particularly interesting for Ross also was largely dismissive of the (then very fashionable) term "authentic" when referring to the performance of baroque music on period instruments. The term has largely dropped out of use now, and for very much the sort of reasons that Ross was sighting as to why "authenticity" in its true sense is impossible to achieve. In an unexpected, but prescient, observation the great Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt had said "You can't be authentic and convincing" because you never know where authenticity stops when being recreated in a different time. As Ross explained, "Couperin said that you had to play the harpsichord with your head tilted and your body turned slightly towards the audience and that you had to look neither too vague nor too insistent. Well, obviously I'm not going to bother about all that when I give a conce rt." This was something that Leonhardt obviously understood at the time as well, but was not commonly accepted, much to the detriment of the early music revival, until some years later.

Thus, these re-issued recordings by Scott Ross still show the mercurial side of the Scarlatti sonatas, and, while the performances are brilliant, and at times even bordering on the eccentric in their modes of interpretation, there is an underlying honesty to the music that transcends mere "authenticity". This is not so much a case of trying to recreate the way Scarlatti might have played these works (for that is never going to be possible) as listening to the next best thing - performances by somebody who understands how Scarlatti might have played them. The fact that Ross himself was so formidable an exponent certainly helps, and the end result is that the performances have achieved that essence of being a "reference" work that Ross set out to make them. The recordings are as fresh sounding as they were nearly 20 years ago and the music, now so much better known, largely as a result of this monumental recording project, shines with more energy and felice than they have since Scarlatti dashed them off.

(c) Peter Wells 2005

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