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


  1. This is a pretty ancient thread, but since I’ve been working through the Naxos volumes, I thought I’d comment that #2 in the series, by Michael Lewin, is a standout. He plays a bunch of sonatas that “compete” with the big names (e.g. K20 v. Pogorelich, K141 v. Argerich), but his performances are resolute and full of life. Highly recommended. I agree that V11 is a bit tepid in comparison to some of the other volumes. Thanks for the posting — Jim

    Comment by jimplank — August 26, 2014 @ 8:18 am

  2. Hello, just a short note to let you know that you can now listen to all 12 tracks from Maria Tipo’s 1955 recording (her first LP) of the Scarlatti Sonatas (the LP was issued by VOX in 1956). Playlist is here:

    All the best, david

    Comment by david hertzberg — August 8, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    • Hi David,
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Your note with the link is especially useful. I like Tip’s playing of Scarlatti a lot, and I’m sure many feel the same way.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 8, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  3. To answer your four questions:

    I like the different pianists on the different discs. Besides hearing some nice variations on the interpretation of Scarlatti, it is nice to get to know a few more artists whose recordings I may hear later on.

    Considering the fact that many of them are in a similar structure, there is a surprising variety among them. They are a delight!

    While the sonatas are quite agreeable on piano, there is nothing like the sound of one played on a harpsichord. Personally, I like my CD with Colin Tinsley.

    I own 4 of the series (4, 6, 7 & 8), and I like them all. But I gravitate toward Nos.6 (Evgeny Zarafiants) and 8 (with Soyeon Lee). If I had to pick my favorite, I would go with Lee, whose playing is sprightly and gutsy.

    Comment by Steve Kurr — August 5, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your detailed and insightful comments.
      I agree with you on all counts except the harpsichord.
      While I enjoy hearing Scarlatti on a harpsichord — some great color comes through — overall I still prefer the sound of the modern piano, which I actually think is better for hearing the play of parts and voices and the poignant harmonies, as long as it isn’t overpedalled or banged out but carefully shaded.
      But maybe that is simply because I play the piano and not the harpsichord.
      I look forward to hearing more from you.

      Comment by welltemperedear — August 5, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by concertmarvel, pnoman. pnoman said: Speaking of Pianists: Scarlatti thoughts: Gottlieb Wallisch in Naxos’ series of complete sonatas: […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Classical music review: We should hear many more Scarlatti ...: The pianist in Vol. 11 is Gottlieb Wallisch (below... -- — July 29, 2010 @ 6:13 pm

  5. I’ll share one personal note — I’ve only played a harpsichord a few times, but one particular time that I did, it was just a revelation for me how Scarlatti sounded, in comparison to the same sonatas that I played on the piano.

    I had also played some Bach that same day, and I didn’t get nearly that sense of sonic difference between harpsichord and piano. So, for me, the Scarlatti Sonatas are simply “born” for the harpsichord.

    Of course, when you have as exquisite a touch and facility as Horowitz and Pogorelich have, you can bring off these sonatas with an appropriate grace and lightness at mercurial speed — but very few of us have that kind of facility.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — July 29, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    • Hi Tim,

      Thank you for taking the time to write up the comparison. I find it very revealing and convincing, coming from your personal experience.

      I play piano but not harpsichord, and still think the Scarlatti sonatas work well on that instrument too — even if it is more of a “transcription.”

      Such is great music, that it can gain on either. It’s not the piano or the harpsichord that wins, but Scarlatti (and the player and listener as well).


      Comment by welltemperedear — July 29, 2010 @ 2:59 pm

      • Ah, but have you ever heard Baroque music played by serious musicians on the accordion? I appreciate it, partly because I know how difficult it is to play, and partly because everyone loves to make fun of the accordion. Even I do, and I’ve played it since I was seven. To give the accordion a chance, listen to Quartetto Gelato. My favorite album is “Rustic Chivalry” but I love all their music. I’ think I’ll go listen to some now! Nan

        Comment by Nan Morrissette — July 30, 2010 @ 4:38 am

      • Hi Nan,
        Nope, never heard it on the accordion.
        But I can imagine.
        I still think I prefer the piano, though it may be a toss up with the harpsichord.
        Just kidding.

        Comment by welltemperedear — July 30, 2010 @ 9:16 am

  6. Dear Ear,
    Your post today reminds me that IT IS TIME TO PLAY SCARLATTI AGAIN! Thank you!!!

    A thousand years ago, about 1966, I was living in a commune in Philadelphia, of all places. I spent a lot of time alone, because most of the others were full-time students and my husband was working in New York. I was pregnant, depressed and terribly lonely. The commune, which had been quite a grand and elegant house in another life, was run-down and worn. However, it had a small grand piano in the living room that was actually in fairly good tune. As a child, and into my second year of high school, I had taken piano lessons from Miss Ocy Lorintha Downs, who was an amazing institution in Portland, Maine. I quit in my junior year, 1963, and had not touched a piano since.

    Back to the commune… One miserable day in that winter of 1966, quite by accident (?) I discovered a volume of Scarlatti sonatas in the piano bench. I had never attempted anything like them, even with Miss Downs. But there was nothing else to do, so I began to pick them out. Soon, I couldn’t wait for everyone to leave the house so I could get back to the piano. I spent hours there, too inexperienced to know that the sonatas were way beyond my skills. But that naivete, I truly believe, is what saved me: through my unsophisticated ears and fingers came glimpses of wonder, chord structures and arpeggios, theme after theme where, like the princesses in a Grimm’s fairy tale, each was more beautiful than the last.

    One day, I was found out – someone returned to the house while I was playing. But this was another serendipitous event – he introduced me to a music student he know, a delightful young man studying to be a concert pianist. I spent many evenings at his house learning and listening and healing my spirit.

    I left the commune to return to Maine and have my child; then got smart and left the husband, too. Although the child, Jenny, is my greatest treasure, the piano has continued to carry me through the roller coaster of life with grace and strength.

    Like you, dear Ear, I am an amateur, although I suspect I am a lot more amateur than you. And I TOTALLY envy you your teacher; I’m on my own. (That’s another story… ) But last year I achieved a personal goal of learning, in order to become conversant with, if not accomplished at, ALL of Haydn’s sonatas (I used the Schott/Urtext edition – the red books.) My goal was to learn more about Haydn as a human composer, looking at how the sonatas develop, finding where they begin to truly become music and not just clumps of bits and pieces. I adore playing 30, 31, 32, and 33 the most, by the way.

    So, Scarlatti truly saved my spirit and, therefore, my life. And yet, until recently I had not played his work. Just got sidetracked over the years by Beethoven and Debussy and Chopin, Janacek, Bach, of course (another story), and Haydn, not to mention Fats Waller and Billie Holliday. There are now three full-size pianos in my living room (a Yamaha vertical-but-grand which I bought one year when what I really needed was a new car), an elderly Kimball baby grand which is a family pet but wonderful for Fats Waller, and a Yamaha Clavinova which has some passable pipe organ sounds. There is even a toy piano with a marvelous tone which was rescued from the Freeport Maine town dump and works beautifully. Also: two accordions which are so much fun, plus my husband’s drum kit. We have lots of music there, sometimes playing three pianos at once, sometimes adding drums and singers and guitar players and anyone who wants to join us. You have not HEARD Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor till you’ve heard it on organ with drums!

    I enjoy all your posts, dear Ear, and have learned a great deal from them. Thank you very, very much. Sorry to go on so long here.

    Oh yes, I much prefer hearing different pianists play such a large volume of music.

    Nan Morrissette

    Comment by Nan Morrissette — July 29, 2010 @ 4:46 am

    • Dear Nan,
      Thank you, thank you for your kind comments about the blog. Such encouragement keeps me going.
      I love your ling and detailed story, especially the various pianos and the Haydn sonata project for the Haydn bicentennial. (Your favorites are great works.)
      You sound every bit the advanced amateur.
      Maybe some day we will get to play for each other.
      Yes, let’s get back to Scarlatti.
      Scarlatti is indeed a universe unto himself and a very appealing one, at least to me. I find him easier to memorize than a lot of Bach, and I find people really like to listen to Scarlatti, especially since a lot of them don’t know his works.
      Beauty is always a revelation, but unknown beauty even more so.
      Keep playing and let us know about your Scarlatti adventures — which sonatas you choose to play and how they are going.

      Comment by welltemperedear — July 29, 2010 @ 8:11 am

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