After having read last week’s dispatch about pianist Carlo Grante’s project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, one of my colleagues got in touch to ask if I had listened to the eighteen Scarlatti sonatas that pianist Alexandre Tharaud had recorded on an Erato/Warner Classics album. This album had been released in March of 2011. However, because I had been impressed by Tharaud’s recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 988 set of (“Goldberg”) variations on an Aria theme (released much later in November of 2015), I was definitely curious about his approach to Scarlatti. Many know that Scarlatti was born in the same year (1685) as Bach (as well as George Frideric Handel); and those who know their Bach probably also know that he, like Handel, was very interested in how music was being made by Italian composers.
One of the virtues of Tharaud’s approach to BWV 988 was that he appeared to appreciate that its publication as a Clavier-Übung (keyboard practice) volume indicated that Bach was interested (perhaps primarily so) in the pedagogical value of the set of variations. Pedagogy for Bach was a two-pronged affair. One of the prong’s, of course, was technical proficiency. However, as had been stated explicitly on the title page of the two-part and three-part inventions (BWV 722–801), Bach was just as committed to seeing that a student should have the capacity “to have good inventions [ideas].” Tharaud was consistently impressive in the inventive approaches he took to the interpretation of the theme and its variations; and, while many of those approaches were firmly fixed in the immediate present (rather than in Bach’s time), they were all consistently satisfying as piano music.
On the other hand we do not really know why Scarlatti wrote such a prodigious number of one-movement keyboard sonatas. He seems to have spent much of his mature life in royal service. Thus, there is a good chance that he was as involved, as a “family tutor,” in matters of pedagogy as Bach was. Similarly, it may well be that the sonatas were intended for “private” listening, to be played either by Scarlatti’s patrons or by Scarlatti himself for the pleasure of his patrons (and, perhaps, their companions, who were also present). As a result, one explanation for the volume of his output was avoiding having one of his patrons exclaim, “Oh, not that again!”
While Tharaud dedicated his album to the memory of Clara Haskil, he definitely seems as determined to put his personal stamp on each of the eighteen sonatas included in the collection as he would later do in recording Bach’s set of variations. However, that sense of consistency with Bach does not come across quite as convincingly where Scarlatti is concerned. It almost seems as if he is seeking out a unique rhetorical stance for each of the eighteen sonatas he recorded without giving much thought as to what might have made sense for Scarlatti himself (or, for that matter, Haskil). Unfortunately, that quest for uniqueness tends to lead to little more than affectation for too many of those performances.
One problem may be that his Scarlatti scholarship is not on a par with his grasp of Bach. In the accompanying booklet Tharaud makes reference to “the Scarlatti manuscript collection in the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice,” which he visited in preparation. Did he know that those manuscripts were not in Scarlatti’s own hand or that the copies were made without his supervision? Similarly, he states flat out that “Scarlatti appears to have shown no interest in the early piano,” overlooking the fact that the one publication that Scarlatti did supervise included the noun “gravicembalo” on the title page, the same noun that Bartolomeo Cristofori was using for his “early” pianos! Mind you, good scholarship does not always lead to compelling performance; but, on the basis of the available recordings, it would appear that Grante has a leg up on Tharaud for both scholarship and approaches to interpretation that are both logical and convincing.