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Erato releases Scott Ross’ recordings of the Kirkpatrick Scarlatti catalog

Scott Ross on the cover of his Scarlatti collection
Scott Ross on the cover of his Scarlatti collectionfrom Amazon.com

Last February I ran a “progress report” on Italian pianist Carlo Grante and his project to record the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. The authoritative catalog of Scarlatti’s keyboard music is the one compiled by Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953. It has 555 entries, a small number of which are actually written as a melodic line and a figured bass, suggesting that they may have been intended as chamber music, rather than keyboard solos. At the time I wrote my progress report, Grante had recorded 270 sonatas, released as three sets of six CDs. All performances were played on a Bösendorfer Imperial piano courtesy of Eva and Paul Badura-Skoda.

Grante began making his recordings in 2009. Long before that, between 1984 and 1985, the harpsichordist Scott Ross recorded all of the entries in the Kirkpatrick catalog for Erato in a variety of different settings in France and using several different harpsichords. In an interview given in 1986, he explained that he changed harpsichords over the course of his recording schedule “to avoid monotony.” This raises an interesting issue among those who insist on arguing about whether Scarlatti’s music should be played on piano at all.

On the one hand a single piano allows for greater sonorous diversity in performance than just about any single harpsichord. On the other hand, the harpsichord was probably Scarlatti’s instrument. Nevertheless, we should remember that, by 1739, the year of the publication of the 30 sonatas in the Essercizi per gravicembalo (the first 30 entries in Kirkpatrick’s catalog), several of Bartolomeo Cristofori’s pianos had been built and were in circulation. (Frederick the Great did not get to show off his own piano to Johann Sebastian Bach until 1747.) Furthermore, it is worth noting that Cristofori called his instrument the “gravicembalo col piano e forte,” although the word “gravicembalo” is just a corruption of “clavicembalo,” the word the Italians used for the harpsichord. The only other observation worth adding to the debate is that there are no dynamic markings in my copy of K. 1 (which is available through IMSLP). Thus, Scarlatti may not have been interested in the “piano e forte” capabilities of Cristofori’s instrument, even if he knew about them.

Scarlatti was born in 1685, the same year as both Bach and George Frideric Handel. His father Alessandro was a composer and music teacher, but the Scarlatti family did not have the same line of prodigious musical ancestors as the Bach family. There is no sign that Scarlatti every crossed paths with Bach. However, there is a story (on Scarlatti’s Wikipedia page) that, while Handel was in Rome, he engaged in a keyboard “competition” with Scarlatti at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni. Apparently, Scarlatti won the harpsichord part of the competition, while Handel triumphed on the organ. Nevertheless, there is little sign that either influenced the other.

Nevertheless, when confronted with the question of what motivated Scarlatti to compose so many keyboard compositions, we might do well to consider Bach. This was a time when the concept of a career in music had not yet really formed. One could make music for the church or for a royal household; but, if one worked in either of these settings, one was also expected to teach. Thus, when we survey the prodigious volume of instrumental music that Bach composed, particular the works written for a solo instrument, I have always believed that it makes sense to view those pieces as having been created for pedagogical purposes.

This seems the best way to consider Scarlatti’s keyboard compositions. The most important difference, when compared with Bach, is that, with only a few exceptions, Scarlatti confined himself to single binary-form movements. The most notable exceptions are five fugues, K. 30, K. 41, K. 58, K. 93, and K. 417. The first of these (which is the last piece in the Essercizi per gravicembalo) tends to have become the best known when, long after Scarlatti’s death, it was given the name “Cat Fugue.”

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Scarlatti’s pedagogical approach to keyboard mastery would have been pretty much the same as Bach’s. On the one hand the student needed to acquire the basic technical proficiency that would involve striking every key the right way at the right time and with the correct hand. (Scarlatti went in for both hand-crossing and repeating notes rapidly by alternating hands much more than Bach did. That particular technical device is even there in K. 1!)

However, Bach also believed in cultivating inventive proficiency. When we take into account the full scope of those 555 entries in Kirkpatrick’s catalog, we realize that they disclose an impressive repertoire of tropes that get used and reused in a diverse variety of highly imaginative ways. (I also recently suggested that Scarlatti acquired at least a few of those tropes from his father.) I would therefore be so bold as to suggest that any aspiring musician who actually learned to play every keyboard sonata that Scarlatti wrote would probably have little trouble sitting down an improvising a few more.

Would this have been feasible? Certainly it would make sense for Ross, given the time it took him to record all of the content that is now available as an Erato box of 34 CDs, the first 33 of which are keyboard solos, followed by a single CD of chamber music and three sonatas played on the organ. It is also worth noting that, in a 1986 interview reproduced in the booklet included in this box, Ross talks about moving on to the complete keyboard music of Bach as his next project. Sadly, Ross died of an AIDS-related condition on June 13, 1989. He had made a few Bach recordings by then but never traversed the entire canon.

Personally, I am not enough of a harpsichord expert to deep-end on Ross’ technique as a Scarlatti interpreter. I can only approach these recordings from the perspective of a listener who has been spending time daily at a keyboard since the summer of 1976. Only one of my teachers had me venture into Scarlatti’s repertoire, but I still enjoy the time I spent working under her guidance. Also, as a former balletomane (those who know me might say “former rabid balletomane”) I became well acquainted with the music for The Good-Humored Ladies, Léonide Massine’s choreography of a selection of Scarlatti sonatas orchestrated by Vincenzo Tommasini.

As a result of that background, I found that, as I worked my way through the CDs in this collection, I had frequent encounters with a ring a familiarity. I also had several (more than I expected) jaw-dropping experiences when I thought, “Did he really expect a performer to do that?” More than once I found myself wondering whether Nadia Boulanger may have been cribbing from Scarlatti when she was training the likes of Aaron Copland and others to composer “American” music.

To those whose listening experience may not be quite so rich, I would say, “If Ross could go through performing all 555 of these pieces within two years’ time, there is no reason why you cannot do the same as a listener.” Listening to Scarlatti should not be likened to a major physical feat, like climbing Mount Fuji. A box like this collection can be sampled gradually in such a way that the listener will accumulate a growing familiarity with both Scarlatti’s expressiveness and his prodigious technical perspective. This is music that has endured well over the centuries, and it deserves to be enjoyed for its cumulative effect rather than any immediate spontaneous gratification that our technology-laden culture has tended to induce.