Ten years have passed since I last recorded keyboard sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti (my first recording for BIS): an extraordinary and exhilarating journey, which has included a number of other recordings. Most of these have been very different from Scarlatti, but as the Chinese saying goes: ‘No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow’. Scarlatti has in fact been both a pillow and a comfort blanket all my life, or at least for as long as I can remember. During my studies in Russia, he was almost considered a ‘Russian’ composer since his sonatas were standard repertoire for any student (of any age) at the conservatories and music schools. One of the most fascinating things about Scarlatti is that no matter how many recordings there are of his music, he never sounds the same: with this composer there is an endless number of possible approaches and transformations.
This is in my opinion particularly the case of performances on the piano because the music has to be transformed and adjusted to the modern instrument and one has to make conscious decisions about how to do this without distorting the original idea. Playing Scarlatti on the piano is in effect a piano transcription, if not by name then by meaning, since Scarlatti’s keyboard instruments were clearly vastly different from the modern piano. Whether it is simply adding ornamentation or accentuating certain timbres, adding voices or chords: here, as a pianist, one is freed from the burden of scary terms such as ‘historical performance practice’ – it is perhaps one of the few (valuable and rare) instances in piano literature where you are free to construct your own performance history in practice, so to speak, using any means one may consider appropriate. When Horowitz went to play Scarlatti for Kirkpatrick – one of the greatest authorities on the composer at the time – to Horowitz’s surprise (and relief), Kirkpatrick in fact encouraged him to play even more freely and take more liberties.With this, I don’t wish in any way to overlook the significance of harpsichord performances (the majority of the sonatas were written for the harpsichord, a few for the organ and, according to certain scholars, the early fortepianos). Getting a better understanding of the sound world and what possibilities the harpsichord and various other period instruments offer is, in my view, only one piece of the puzzle for a pianist, however (and not a requirement). In the end, the instrument debate is more of an academic question – and as with many academic questions, it is the process of looking for the answers that will help us get further, rather than obsessing about a conclusive result. Far more intriguing is the process of trying to get inside the mind of the composer and into the spirit of the music (in ways that are not only informed but also intuitive), and to look for clues for how to communicate the composer’s intentions, regardless of whether one is ‘plucking’ or ‘hammering’ away at the strings.
It is both extraordinary and puzzling that for the first 33 years of his life, while still under the influence of his father and Neapolitan opera, Scarlatti didn’t write anything of real significance. It was not until 1719 that his fate took an unexpected turn, with the appointment to the royal court in Portugal as mentor to the nine-year-old infanta and keyboard prodigy Maria Magdalena Barbara. In 1729, the infanta married into the Spanish royal family, later becoming Queen of Spain. Scarlatti followed his young pupil and patroness to Seville and later to Madrid, where the Spanish court settled permanently in 1733, to continue the lessons. The atmosphere was a little stuffy at the court and, as a remedy, Maria Barbara asked for a regular supply of fresh sonatas. Scarlatti was happy to oblige and, at the ripe age of 50, his muse finally awakened: it was now that the sonatas began to flow from under his pen one by one, reaching the number of 555 (and possibly more) – an almost unparalleled legacy of miniatures of a miraculous variety. The poet Gabriele d’Annunzio compared the sonatas to a necklace which breaks, producing a resounding hail of glistening pearls, rolling around and bouncing about like precious bubbles of watery beauty. It is difficult to understand where Scarlatti’s muse had been hiding all those years and perhaps a more cynical observer than myself would note that while a successful artist is inspired by his muse, his muse will in turn need to be inspired by the payment of a commission – and such commissions seems to have been lacking in the early years of Scarlatti’s career. In any case, the arrangement proved to be fruitful and lasted until Scarlatti’s death in 1757 (with the Queen dying less than a year later).
It is not an easy task to showcase the vast variety of these sonatas on a single disc (or two) while also wanting to introduce some of the lesser known sonatas to the listener. They are a true gift to the imagination containing an infinite amount of interpretative possibilities. When in Spain, Scarlatti seized the opportunity to explore Spanish folk music and popular rhythms in their original forms. As a result, the sonatas vividly reflect a colourful Iberian way of life – the fire of flamenco, the clicking of castanets, the strumming of guitars and the thump of muffled drums – yet also manage to retain many Italian elements, not infrequently preserving the bel canto style, such as in the sonatas K208 in A major and K318 in F sharp major (quite an exotic key for this time). While written in major keys, these are unusual in their reflective and meditative character.
Scarlatti undertook frequent excursions to Cádiz and Granada, where life was rich in Moorish sensuality and the Andalusian chants had a touch of the Orient – elements which one can identify in the sonata K213 in D minor. Together with K69 in F minor, this belongs to a handful of pieces which totally transcend the happenings of everyday life and moves one onto an entirely different plateau, where expression comes from harmony rather than melody and is implied rather than explicit. These sonatas are few and far between but one immediately recognizes them: their effect can be absolutely mesmerizing, as in the emotionally penetrating bitter wail of a gypsy lament in the Aria K32 in D minor. Equally rarely, one comes across a fugue (there are only five out of 555). The one in D minor, K417, is perhaps Scarlatti’s most taxing piece. It has a force that grows ever stronger as the climax towards the end inexorably approaches – most certainly more than just a miniature. Both in D minor, the fugue K417 (with which this disc starts) and the aria (K32) at the end mirror each other in that each of them strives towards redemption (reaching a tierce de Picardie ending with a D major chord).
Then there are the truly virtuoso sonatas such as in K29 in D major where Scarlatti is at his most brazen and uninhibited, with neck- and wrist-breaking scales across a huge range of the keyboard. Similarly one can find cascading scales in some of his minor-key sonatas such as in the dramatic K373 in G minor. This time the scales cascade downwards, like an out-of-control waterfall (where drowning in technical difficulties becomes a very real prospect). K141 in D minor is one of the better known sonatas, with schizophrenic repetitions that can easily heat up the keys and leave dents from all the wild friction. This firework display is an orgy of luminous reverberations and shrill guitar strummings, particularly in the coarseness of the left hand: both mandolins and castanets are heard. Here one almost suspects Scarlatti of having turned to his advantage the rattling keys of some worn-out harpsichord on which he may have had to play (Scarlatti and his ambitious pupil had at least a dozen at their disposal!). It would take many books to describe in detail all the different characters presented in each sonata, with church bells and gunshots (K119 in D major), howls in the streets and stomping of feet (K479 in D major), trumpets appearing on the horizon (K159 in C major: a delightfully playful piece), exotic minuets and head-spinning dances (K9 in D minor and, in particular, K425 in G major whirl with such a force that a crash becomes inevitable at the end). It is very rare to find music that is truly humorous, but Scarlatti clearly had a wonderful sense of humour (as did Haydn), judging from the infinite number of facetious gestures. Sonata K125 in G major is a testament to that. Other sonatas, on the other hand, appear as melancholic, lean and desiccated as a sun-baked Mediterranean landscape (K99 in C minor).
In 1738, when a set of thirty sonatas was published (one of the few printed in his lifetime), Scarlatti wrote in the preface: ‘Whether you be Dilettante or Professor, in these Compositions do not expect any profound Learning, but rather an ingenious Jesting with Art, to accommodate you to the Mastery of the Harpsichord.’ While clearly underplaying the significance of the compositions, he points to the free spirit of his approach, with ‘Jesting’ being the keyword. Both the Queen and Scarlatti were not only masters at jesting but also extraordinary harpsichordists (as can be clearly deduced from the technical difficulty level in some of the sonatas). More importantly, however, they also possessed great improvisational skills (a rarity nowadays). From various copies of manuscripts which have been uncovered, everything seems to indicate that for each of the notated sonatas, Scarlatti had dozens of alternative versions. This says a lot about the spontaneity essential to the performance of the pieces. It is often difficult to restrain oneself from embellishing the repeats of each section too much (most sonatas are written in a straightforward binary form with repeats of each section, making it tempting to add variations), as new notes, chords, scales or voices just begin to appear under one’s hands on their own.
It is curious that the sonatas were by no means as popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they were to become in the twentieth. Chopin assigned some of Scarlatti’s sonatas to his pupils, who weren’t particularly enthusiastic. Though Chopin himself had often expressed his conviction that Scarlatti would soon be played in concerts as part of a standard repertoire, this did not happen until Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann started to include the sonatas in their regular recital programmes from around 1838. This did not go unnoticed by Czerny who finally, in 1839, and perhaps as a result of hearing Liszt play in concert, brought out the first ‘complete’ edition of around 200 Scarlatti sonatas in Vienna. But it wasn’t until Horowitz’s time that the sonatas became known on a much wider scale. Suddenly, the sonatas found their way into the repertoire of many great pianists as well as harpsichordists. At that time, the interest in Spanish music in general had already begun to grow and the audiences’ fascination with the Iberian ingredients so well preserved in the sonatas became even more apparent.
It is a curious fact that true quality so often takes such a long time to become recognized: sometimes centuries, sometimes never. How can perceptions change so radically and en masse? Attributing it to simple shifts in fashion or trends would in my view be simplistic. In Scarlatti’s case, the development that followed after him in music was probably a prerequisite for us now to be truly able to appreciate how forward-looking and modern the sonatas must have seemed in his own time, but it also enables us to perceive a myriad of new elements, quite likely mostly incomprehensible to the audiences prior to the nineteenth century. It’s intriguing to speculate about how perceptions may have changed in another few hundred years’ time and whether future audiences’ appreciation of certain ‘old’ music will have intensified further. As a performer, I choose anyway to believe that the more aware one becomes of the richness of the many styles available throughout the history of music (and of art in general), the more tools one will uncover in order to convey a certain emotional nuance.
© Yevgeny Sudbin 2015