The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: We should hear many more Scarlatti keyboard sonatas — so Volume 11 in Naxos’ series of the complete Scarlatti is a fine addition to an outstanding series

July 29, 2010

By Jacob Stockinger

When you hear a great Scarlatti sonata – and there are many great ones among the 555 sonatas that Domenico Scarlatti (1885-1757) composed for the keyboard – you inevitably wonder: Why haven’t they found a bigger place in the active performing, recording and teaching repertoire?

Chopin knew of Scarlatti (below) and his sonatas, and apparently played them and taught them. But it wasn’t until the early and mid-20th century when virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz and baroque scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick made them a staple of the piano repertoire.

Then came many more great interpreters including Robert Casadesus, Dinu Lipatti, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Andrea Schiff, Maria Tipo, Ivo Pogorelich, Alexis Weissenberg, Martha Argerich, Murray Perahia and Mikhail Pletnev, among others. (Of course, there is a whole other school of harpsichordists, led by the late Scott Ross, who played and recorded the complete or selected works of Scarlatti.) But why no Scarlatti from Sviatoslav Richter? Maurizio Pollini? Emanuel Ax?

Moreover, even among those prestigious names you keep hearing the same two dozen or so sonatas.

All the more reason, then, to welcome the budget-label Naxos project, which uses different pianists to record all the sonatas on a modern piano.

With Volume 11, the series is approaching the half-way mark. And the latest volume has many of the virtues of the previous volumes.

You hear a lot of unknown or unfamiliar sonatas — new repertoire — form the early, middle and late periods. True, many seem only mediocre to above-average, hack work for the Spanish court. But almost all volumes also offer real treasures that have lain hidden or unknown for too long.

I, for example, have found increasingly that I like the slower, ballad-like sonatas over the faster and more dance-like, more Spanish-influenced, sonatas Scarlatti, who began his career in Italy and finished it at a Spanish court.

I also find that the series give me good ideas of how to program them two or three at a time, making up either a contrasting pair (often major key-minor key or slow-fast) or a fabricated three-movement Classical-era sonata.

The pianist in Vol. 11 is Gottlieb Wallisch (below). He has won his share of prizes and played his share of recitals and concertos. He is no star and I doubt he will become one. To my ear, he doesn’t quite rise to the level of Vols. 5, 7, 8 and 10, which feature (respectively) Benjamin Frith, Konstantin Scherbakov, Soyeon Lee and Colleen Lee. But he is very good.

Wallisch seems solid and competent, occasionally even inspired. (I wonder: Did he get to choose the 18 sonatas on this recording?) You can check out his web site via this link:

One of the things I also like is that Scarlatti helps the Italian baroque to compete with the predominance of the German baroque, with Bach, Handel, Telemann and other of their contemporaries.

In some ways, I think of Scarlatti as the Vivaldi of the keyboard. His work is appealing and prolific, plus it can be repetitive and easy to digest with its sense of accessible pathos and joy. It is also fun to, if challenging, to play with its lighter and less contrapuntal, more songful and guitar-like texture.

And speaking as an amateur pianist, I also find Scarlatti’s sonatas are great for doing exactly what the composer designed them to do: Serve as exercises that limber up the fingers and advance musicality.

What do you think of the Naxos Scarlatti series using different pianists?

What do you think of Scarlatti sonatas?

On the piano versus harpsichord?

Do you have favorite volumes in the Naxos series?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music

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