1685 was a good year for music. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti were all born in that year. Three titans of the baroque and three different musical paths.
Bach was the great contrapuntalist who elevated music to new cerebral heights. Handel the composer of great oratorios and orchestral works.
And Scarlatti? Well his fame rests on small keyboard pieces that he called Sonatas
, all very similar in form, each just a few minutes long (the shortest is 2 minutes and the longest is 7), and with almost none of the contrapuntal complexity or thematic development of his peers.
Is the stuff of great music? What's the big deal?
For a start, there are 555 of them. Within these 555 Sonatas
lies an almost limitless variety of rhythmic and thematic variation. Pick any single Sonata
and you are guaranteed of a delight and more than likely a surprise or two as well. Surprises in the form of unusual key shifts, keyboard virtuosity or unexpected dissonances.
The fact they they all follow the baroque binary form (A-B-A) makes their variety even more striking. Dancelike and cheerful, or contemplative and moody, each of Scarlatti's Sonatas
is individual and as a body of work, they are deceptively profound.
Domenico Scarlatti had an odd life. The favourite son of the respected operatic composer Alessandro Scarlatti, Domenico was groomed to follow in his father's footsteps. His early works, operas and cantatas, are forgetable.
In 1719 he moved to Portugal to teach the Infanta Maria Barbara, later to become Queen of Spain. Here is where his own style of music flourished, away from the shackles of his domineering father. It was for the Queen that he composed his Sonatas
, Italian in style, but heavily laced with the Spanish rhythms of his adopted country. He never returned to his homeland Italy.
In 1985, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the birth of Scarlatti, French radio broadcast a weekly series of Scarlatti Sonatas
played by harpsichordist Scott Ross. By the end of the series Ross had recorded, for the first time, the entire set of the 555 Scarlatti's sonatas. A monumental undertaking, Ross recorded 2 sonatas a day over 15 months, and the result was 34 compact discs packed with these miniature masterpieces, many of which had never been recorded before.
Scott Ross was American-born but lived most of his life in France and Canada. He was already well known for his complete recordings of Rameau's Pièces de Clavecin
, and Pièces de Clavecin
But by far his most ambitious project was his recording of all 555 Scarlatti Sonatas
, received to much acclaim. He died in 1989 from AIDS, and this set serves as his greatest legacy. Scott Ross elevated the Sonatas
from mere musical exercises to one of the great body of works for the keyboard.
The harpsichord does not have great tonal or dynamic range. In fact, the piano was invented to overcome these shortcomings. I am the first to admit that after about 30 or 40 minutes of non-stop harpsichord, no matter how brilliant, it can start to sound a bit monotonous and even irritating.
But sample them a few at a time; these are little gems. Certainly easier on the ear than Bach's keyboard works, but no less impressive. Ross plays them with the utmost respect, his technique impeccable and his choice of harpsichord (there are several) makes for interesting contrasts.
Apart from the entire 34 CD set
, there is also available from Scott Ross a three-CD Scarlatti Anthologie
as well as this single CD of the best-loved Sonatas
. While the true harpsichord afficionado will purchase the entire set, the rest of us can sample the best-of in the other two releases.
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- Sonata for keyboard in D minor, K. 1 (L. 366)
- Sonata for keyboard in D minor, K. 9 (L. 413), "Pastorale"
- Sonata for keyboard in G major, K. 14 (L. 387)
- Sonata for keyboard in B minor, K. 27 (L. 449)
- Sonata for keyboard in F major, K. 38 (L. 478)
- Sonata for keyboard in G major, K. 103 (L. 233)
- Sonata for keyboard in A major, K. 114 (L. 344)
- Sonata for keyboard in D minor, K. 141 (L. 422)
- Sonata for keyboard in A major, K. 208 (L. 238)
- Sonata for keyboard in D minor, K. 213 (L. 108) "The Lover"
- Sonata for keyboard in F major, K. 296 (L. 198)
- Sonata for keyboard in F major, K. 297 (L. S19)
- Sonata for keyboard in D major, K. 298 (L. S6)
- Sonata for keyboard in D major, K. 299 (L. 210)
- Sonata for keyboard in E major, K. 380 (L. 23) "Cortège"
- Sonata for keyboard in D major, K. 490 (L. 206)
- Sonata for keyboard in D major, K. 491 (L. 164)
- Sonata for keyboard in D major, K. 492 (L. 14)
- Sonata for keyboard in F minor, K. 555 (L. 477)