Our previous reviews of earlier volumes in this series from Nimbus of all Scarlatti's keyboard sonatas played by Richard Lester, have acknowledged a remarkable achievement remarkably well brought off. The miscellany of works in this final volume is no exception.
One does not note the kind of personal development of the Italian composer who spent most of his life in Spain - and specifically in the service of the a handful of members of the same royal court - as one does for, say, the piano sonatas of Beethoven or even Mozart, who was born the year before Scarlatti died. Yet there is a sort of progression … Scarlatti's priorities change and mature, his confidence grows, new interests take over from others fully explored.
Indeed it's Scarlatti's immense variety that - above much else - may strike a listener who takes the time and trouble really to listen to one sonata after another. In appreciating this body of recordings, which must surely now be regarded as the preferred set, one will also marvel at the amount of original musicological scholarship undertaken then exploited by Lester - a scholarship which has firmly underpinned every aspect of his meticulous approach.
This means that the series as a whole must be rounded off with a set of three CDs that attend to 'unfinished business', as it were. These are variants, recently discovered works, and unpublished appendices. Volume VII consists of three CDs and a total of 57 sonatas (23 on disc 1 and 17 on each of discs 2 and 3) whose manuscripts are held - not in Venice, as has been the case for the sonatas presented in Volumes I to VI - but in various Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German locations, and indeed in the Fitzwilliam and British Library (Worgan) collections.
When Scarlatti's first modern champion, Ralph Kirkpatrick (the 'K' of the Domenico Scarlatti cataloguing system) was writing in 1953, he knew of no (extant) Iberian manuscripts, although he did accept into a secondary canon a few works not in the Venice manuscripts. Kirkpatrick's assumption was that the entire oeuvre, copied during the composer's last years (1752-57) and passed on to the singer Farinelli on Scarlatti's death, was to be found in Venice and Parma. Then, prompted by the tercentenary of Scarlatti's birth in 1985, new sonatas began to come to light.
Perhaps inevitably, scholars have disputed some attributions to Scarlatti - of the K142-144 (CD 1), for example. Lester's assessments draw on the clear and expansive notes of W Dean Sutcliffe in looking at the cases for and against a particular sonata's inclusion in the canon. The latter's The Keyboard Sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Eighteenth-Century Musical Style, CUP (2003) 0521481406 was also previously recommended here as an excellent companion source. The judgements of them both seem good. Inclusive if there is doubt, which there rarely is.
CDs 2 and 3, on the other hand, include those nearly three dozen sonatas which Kirkpatrick numbered (K31-42, K202-206, K356-7, K452-3, K544-555) but which were not part of Queen Maria Barbara's Venice manuscripts.
This final volume is not to be considered as a set of doubtful curios, though. The music is uniformly valid in its own right. And it's as expertly played by Lester as any other in the entire sequence. The lively and compelling rhythms of the dance are as prominent as ever. Lester elicits subtlety in such passages and achieves the right balance between the very sound of the harpsichord he plays and the music 'beyond' the sonorities of any one instrument.
The tempi and contrasts of these dance-inspired works are finely nuanced yet plainly articulated: listen to the range of textures and sonorities supporting the melody, in K K554, and how Lester uses them with complete confidence. The more intricate tempi - the halting K33, for example - are equally deftly negotiated.
There are some exciting, not to say exhilarating, moments - indeed the opening of K141 is chromatic, sparse and full of tension. The handling of both the onset of this drama and its release are reminders of just how good a technique Lester has.
Nothing is dwelt on for too long; at the same time no opportunity for intrinsic colour is missed. In common with not a few other of the sonatas here, there is scope for some mis-steps - many passages are overtly percussive. Lester avoids this trap and keeps one's interest in the aural palette and melodies as much as in the insistence of the rhythms. At the same time he does not let the pace drop or lag. His tempi in K144 are good examples of this fine judgement. The same informed restraint Lester applies (in K35 and K147, for example) to Scarlatti's repetitions. His playing balances momentum with delicacy; the ostinati never cloy. Listen to Lester's tour de force in K 205 - nearly nine minutes of sustained balance and measured advance, not missing a beat, nor over-driving the insistent progressions. Breathtaking.
These assessments might seem to suggest that the music in these volumes lacks melody because it's somehow experimental or wayward. Far from it. Lester points Scarlatti's melodic invention up consistently well: perhaps through his confidence and familiarity with the music and the genre as much as anything.
The harpsichord used on this recording is by Michael Cole after José Joachim Antunes (1785) with A tuned to 415 (Valotti). The liner notes - a little lacking throughout the other volumes - are fuller here (see above). The recording is forward, lush and impactful. Indeed, one criticism that could be legitimately levelled at Lester's sound is that it is too bright - a little too insistently metallic. For some listeners used to a damper acoustic and/or an essentially quieter instrument that will be the case.
Until now the reference recording for this repertoire has been that of Scott Ross. But it's more than 20 years since that recording appeared; it comes on 34 CDs and represents very good value for money; Ross' approach and execution are excellent. Lester's Nimbus series comprises 38 discs: it contains more material and makes an exceptionally good alternative which cannot be recommended too highly.
Mark Sealey, Musicweb-international.com
Brian Wilson has also listened to this set
As 2007 marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Domenico Scarlatti, it is hardly surprising that the recording industry has chosen to mark the occasion. The current 3-CD set marks the conclusion of one marathon series, recorded by Richard Lester, originally issued at full price by the small independent label Privilege Accord a couple of years ago and now reissued at bargain price on the reborn Nimbus label. Though labelled ‘Appendices and Diversities’, this final set is by no means to be considered the rejects or sweepings from the master’s workshop: several of the sonatas here would (and do: Kk141, for example) deserve a place in single-CD anthologies of Scarlatti’s best works. (NB to avoid confusion with Köchel numbers for Mozart, I have listed the Kirkpatrick numbers for Scarlatti as Kk.)
The main recordings have been issued in five 6-CD boxes and one 5-CD box, containing all the works included in the manuscripts which were collected and taken to Venice by the castrato Farinelli after Scarlatti’s death. In addition to those so-called Queen’s Venice manuscripts, the standard Kirkpatrick numbering embraces five other collections, one at Parma, one originally belonging to Thomas Roseingrave, a wealthy music-lover, and two now in the Episcopal Library at Münster. Those Kirkpatrick-numbered sonatas, 34 in total, which are not to be found in the Venice manuscripts are performed on the second and third CDs. The first CD is even more diverse, containing ten sonatas which Kirkpatrick accepted in his catalogue from sources other than the Venice and Parma collections and thirteen sonatas from sources not known to Kirkpatrick. This arrangement disturbs the Kk order – Kk356-7, for example, would otherwise belong in Volume III.
The booklet contains a very detailed essay by Dr W Dean Sutcliffe in which he discusses how the extra items on the first disc came to light and how authentic they are. Not even all the items accorded Kirkpatrick numbers and/or included in the earlier Longo catalogue are sacrosanct. (Confusingly, some commentators still employ the older Longo numbers. I have given the L equivalents of the sonatas in the heading. Some sonatas do not have L numbers: for details see the online concordance of the Kk, L and P numbers – yes, there is a third system, named after Pestelli!) Kk95 and 97 are found only in a Parisian manuscript and Sutcliffe doubts their authenticity, pointing to similarities between them and the keyboard works of Couperin and his contemporaries, an attribution made all the more probable by the sensitive manner in which Lester performs them, with a marked change of style between tracks 5 and 6 (Kk145-6 from the Fitzwilliam MS) and tracks 7-8 (Kk95 and 97).
Lester uses two harpsichords in some of the other volumes, but on this final set plays only a copy of a Portuguese instrument of 1785, the original of which is in the Finchcocks collection. On the first CD this is tuned to A 415, employing the Werckmeister III temperament; on the two other CDs, recorded a year later, while retaining the A 415 pitch, the same instrument has been tuned using a different well-tempered system by Valotti. As I have written recently in reviewing Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier, I am not blessed or cursed with absolute pitch, so I do not notice any difference between these two temperaments. Kk453 is performed first on the harpsichord and then on the fortepiano; despite the heading ‘The Instruments’ in the booklet, only the harpsichord is named and described and no explanation is offered as to why this one sonata is given such treatment.
Despite the use of only the one harpsichord here, Lester’s playing is sufficiently varied for this not to be a problem. Scarlatti no more wrote the same sonata 555+ times than Vivaldi wrote the same concerto hundreds of times. I have already referred to Lester’s sensitivity to the different styles of Kk145-6 and Kk95 and 97 and the same variety of touch is apparent throughout the set. What is less apparent is any attempt to link those many sonatas which seem to be paired as halves of a greater whole in one or both catalogues – Kk32-3 (L423-4), for example. Indeed, the booklet makes only the briefest, rather dismissive, reference to this pairing concept on page 9: if Dr Sutcliffe disbelieves the theory, it would have been helpful to say so more directly.
Kk141, the very first sonata on CD1, matches Roseingrave’s description of Scarlatti’s playing as if "ten thousand d__ls had been at the instrument." Lester polishes it off with appropriate bravura but he is equally able to match the style of the quieter sonatas. Many of these sonatas are comparatively easy but Lester never trivialises them. Kk545 (CD3), for example, looks deceptively easy in the score – it even made me think I might manage to play it till I noticed that it is marked prestissimo: I might just manage it at allegro! Lester plays it with such aplomb that one might think there were as many of Roseingrave’s d__ls in it as in Kk141.
Kk546 is a much quieter affair and Lester copes with its more reflective mood as effectively as he does its wilder predecessor. Perhaps I could manage Kk546 but, unfortunately, this is not one of the scores available online.
As usual, it helps to follow at least some of the pieces with the score to hand; some of these may be found by key signature at online-musiclibrary. Slightly more is on offer, more conveniently listed by Kk number – including Kk141 and the complete run of the Roseingrave sonatas, Kk31-42 – at icking music. Just the first three of the Roseingrave sonatas provide plenty of contrast – Kk31 fast but not furious, with a short contrasting andante section, bars 43-47; Kk32 a lyrical Aria and Kk33, though marked allegro, containing some of those d – ls again in its demisemiquaver runs. Follow them with the score and you will appreciate how well Lester adapts his playing to the different moods.
The recordings are good, though they benefit from playback at a lower volume than usual: my normal level made the sound too ‘big’, with not enough air around the instrument. At around 3dB lower than usual, the sound is just right.
Earlier volumes in this series have been generally well received, for example by my Musicweb colleague Mark Sealey, whose recent enthusiastic reviews of Volume V, Volume V1 and Volume III, should be consulted since they contain matters which it would be superfluous to repeat here. At the same time Brilliant Classics are also engaged in a bargain-price Complete Sonatas set, being released in more bite-size 3-CD chunks, in Kirkpatrick order, and performed on a variety of instruments. Robert Hugill found Belder’s playing on Volume 6 of this set good but a little lacking in variety; others have responded rather more positively.
Mark Sealey complained of the flimsy construction of the cases of the earlier sets. Volume VII is housed in a conventional double-size CD case of sturdy construction. Those seeking a single-CD anthology of Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas will be well served by the pending reissue of Trevor Pinnock’s set of 14 sonatas on DGG Archiv Al Fresco 477 6736, due for release in September 2007, or the selection from Scott Ross’s complete set on Warner Elatus 2564 60030 2, or the selection from Pierre Hantaï’s award-winning recordings on Naïve E8836, all three at mid price. Mikhail Pletnev’s bargain-price 2-CD selection on Virgin Veritas 5 61961 2 is an award-winner but, as he performs the sonatas on the piano and I dislike hearing any music from this period on the piano, it is outside my jurisdiction.
Those with a desire for completeness can hardly go wrong.
Brian Wilson, Musicweb-international.com