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Carlo Grante’s ambitious Scarlatti sonata project

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Italian pianist Carlo Grante is currently in the process of recording the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. There are 555 of them in the 1953 catalog prepared by Scarlatti authority and harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick. For the record, Giorgio Pestelli compiled a catalog published in 1967 with 559 entries. While there are sonatas in Pestelli’s catalog that do not show up in Kirkpatrick, the opposite is also true! My guess is that, as I write this, somewhere a graduate student in musicology is laboring to reconcile this difference.

Whichever source you prefer, however, this is a large number. To put it in the proper scale, however, one must recognize that each of these sonatas consists of only a single movement. By way of comparison, the count of sacred cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach in Wolfgang Schmieder’s Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis (BWV) catalog is 200. However, most of those cantatas consist of multiple movements; and a generous share of them are longer than the average length of a Scarlatti sonata. Thus, in terms of “ballpark figures,” one can probably put Scarlatti in Bach’s “league.”

Grante began recording these sonatas in 2009 in Vienna. Respecting the fact that Scarlatti never chose to be specific about what keyboard instrument is most suitable for performing his sonatas, Grante has been using a Bösendorfer Imperial courtesy of Eva and Paul Badura-Skoda. The first volume, consisting of six CDs, was released by Music & Arts in April of 2010. This was followed by a second volume of six CDs the following July. This was followed by a rather lengthy hiatus, and the third volume was released only this past November. For those interested in counting, there are 90 sonatas in the first volume, 89 in the second, and 91 in the third, making for a current total of 270, almost at the halfway mark. By way of comparison, Nimbus released a collection of Richard Lester playing “the majority of the sonatas” on nine CDs; but these are in MP3, rather than audio, format. Total playing time is 41 hours.

In organizing his recordings, Grante is following neither Kirkpatrick nor Pestelli. Furthermore, as Grante’s booklet notes explain, there is no authoritative source that will establish the chronology of these sonatas. He has thus decided to order his selections on the basis of authoritative publications, organized according to the city of publication and the volume number within that published series. The only exception is that the first volume begins with a collection of 30 sonatas entitled Essercizi per gravicembalo, published in London in 1739. Note that the title seems to recognize Bartolomeo Cristofori, generally recognized as the inventor of the modern piano, who called his instrument “gravicembalo col piano e forte.” The remainder of the recordings released to date cover the first eight of the fifteen volumes published in Parma (covering 463 sonatas in their entirety). The remaining sonatas come from manuscripts in Venice.

All of this discussion should be sufficient to establish that Grante has put some serious musicology into play in his recording project. My only real quibble is that it is a bit difficult for the listener interested in seeking out a specific sonata. There is a very valuable Wikipedia page that cross-indexes the catalog numbers provided by Kirkpatrick and Pestelli, as well as the earlier version by Alessandro Longo and an even earlier (and not particularly thorough) one by Carl Czerny. Furthermore, that Web page is interactive, allowing the reader to sort the list according to any of the catalog sources. Perhaps some kind soul will add Grante’s catalog numbers to this list. Fortunately, in the track listings printed in the accompanying booklets, he provides the Kirkpatrick number alongside his own catalog number. As a result of downloading my copies (Volume One, Volume Two, and Volume Three) from ClassicsOnline, I have those booklets in PDF form, which gives me the luxury of searching for Kirkpatrick numbers.

Nevertheless, listening is not necessarily about scholarship, nor should it be. What can be said about the experience of listening to 270 of these sonatas back-to-back over a relatively brief duration of time? I am tempted to summarize by saying, “Don’t try this at home (or anywhere else for that matter)!” Indeed, listening to any one of these CDs is likely to be a bit much; and I doubt that I would go out of my way to attend a recital consisting entirely of these sonatas, however cleverly the performer may have tried to arrange them.

Nevertheless, I really like Grante’s project; and I am very happy with what he has achieved thus far. I am reminded of an advertising slogan used by The New York Times back in the days when we got our news off of paper, rather than a computer screen. The Sunday edition of that paper was always a massive item, sure to break the back of any delivery boy. So the Times ran a campaign on the slogan:

You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there.

Having tried to play a handful of these sonatas for myself, I have considerable affection for this resource and the approach that Grante has been taking. I feel very good knowing that, when he comes to the it of this project, it will all be there (at least on the basis of contemporary scholarship).

I am also reminded of “The Greatest Living Author,” one of the better essays about Henry Miller written by the poet Karl Shapiro. In his opening paragraph, Shapiro recounts how he had recommended to Lawrence Durrell that they collaborate in compiling a “bible” of Miller’s work that could be placed in every hotel alongside the copy of the Gideon Bible that is already there (or, perhaps, replacing it). Without trying to sound sacrilegious, I can see myself setting a regimen of listening to a different Scarlatti sonata at the beginning of every day, just as there are people who begin their day by reading a passage from the Bible. In both cases there will be days when one encounters something highly familiar and others that will be days of discovery. That oscillation between familiarity and novelty may be the best way to get to know the full canon of Scarlatti keyboard sonatas.

With that premise as motivation, I should conclude by saying that Grante will provide an excellent medium for such a process. He brings a keen sense of rhetoric to his Bösendorfer performances. The result is that he not only provides a clear technical account of what Scarlatti has written but also establishes a performance that endows each sonata with its own “sense of character.” Indeed, it is because Grante can see into so many subtle difference in character type that one could be overwhelmed by listening to too many of these sonatas in a single sitting. Grante clearly knows how to treasure each one of them for its own merits, and there can be many hours of satisfying listening for those of us who choose to do the same.

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