Thursday, July 28, 2016

Carlo Grante’s Scarlatti Sonata Project Advances to its Fourth Volume

I first became aware of Italian pianist Carlo Grante’s project to record all of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti early in 2014. By that time Music & Arts had released his first three volumes, each of which consisted of six CDs. While harpsichordist Scott Ross had established himself by recording all 555 of the sonatas in the numerical order established by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalog, Grante has taken a different approach, which is likely to involve a larger number of sonatas. There have been several attempts to catalog these sonatas, but Kirkpatrick’s is the most recent and remains the most authoritative. Therefore, it might be appropriate to walk through a few of the details behind this numerical accounting process.

Very little of Scarlatti’s music was published during his lifetime. The major exception is a book of 30 one-movement sonatas published in 1738 under the title Essercizi (exercises) per gravicembalo. “Gravicembalo” is basically a corruption of “clavicembalo,” the Italian word for the harpsichord. The distorted noun may be a reflection of the dialect in Naples, where Scarlatti was born; or it may reflect the fact that, by 1738, Bartolomeo Cristofori had made several of the predecessors of the modern piano, calling his instrument “gravicembalo col piano e forte.” While the latter may make a good case that Scarlatti intended his exercises to be played on the piano, there are no dynamic markings in the 30 Essercizi sonatas. In any event the publication was supervised by Scarlatti, and these sonatas account for the first entries in Kirkpatrick’s catalog, as well as the first two CDs in the first volume that Grante recorded.

After that sonatas were copied out for a large number of publications with no input from Scarlatti. Between 1752 and 1757 (the year of Scarlatti’s death), fifteen volumes were published in Parma accounting for 463 sonatas; and thirteen volumes were published in Venice consisting of 374 sonatas, some overlapping pieces in the Parma volumes. There were also collections of 61 sonatas published in 1742 and 41 sonatas in 1749, both in Venice. Grante’s booklet notes indicate that, once duplicates are eliminated, there are still more than the 555 sonatas in Kirkpatrick’s catalog.

As a result, he has organized the first phase of his recording project, at least to date, around the Parma volumes. His first release took in the first two Parma books on the four CDs following the two for the Essercizi. The second recording covered the third, fourth, and fifth Parma books; and the third volume of the project accounted for the sixth, seventh, and eighth. At the beginning of this month, Music & Arts released the fourth volume, which presents the ninth, tenth, and eleventh books on five CDs. Since the track listings for all of these recordings include the Kirkpatrick numbers, one quickly discovers that Kirkpatrick did not use the Parma orderings in his own catalog. However, in his booklet notes Grante makes the claim that both the Essercizi and the Parma publications present the sonatas “in a musically satisfying sequence.”

That is a claim worth considering. Like the Essercizi publication, each of the Parma books contains 30 sonatas, with the exception of the seventh book, which contains 31. That means that playing through a single book in its entirety would probably occupy enough time to fill a recital (albeit one of the shortish side, particularly if the book is played without an intermission). To some extent having this music packaged on CDs provides the curious listener with the opportunity to have that sort of recital experience. Whether or not such a listening experiment is recommended is another matter.

Most likely what “satisfies” Grande involves the key changes (or lack thereof) as one advances from one sonata to its successor. He may also have found interesting that the tenth book both begins and concludes in F minor, while the eleventh book begins in G major and concludes in C major, suggesting that the whole volume might be a prolonged dominant-to-tonic cadence. On the other hand the ninth book begins in D major and concludes in C major; and, while there is an intervening pair of sonatas in G major (the tenth and eleventh), trying to make a case for Schenkerian prolongation across the entire book would be more than a stretch. More realistic are the situations in which Ross’ booklet notes sometimes find smaller sequential clusters (rarely more than two) in his Kirkpatrick ordering.

More important is Grande’s decision to play all of his recordings on a Bosendorfer Imperial piano. His recordings appeal not because of some grand design that flows through the entirety of one of the Music & Arts releases or even through the entirety of a single Parma book. Rather, the appeal comes from how he seeks out an expressive account, based on the capabilities of a modern piano, of each sonata taken as an individual entity. From that point of view, it would be fair to say that he succeeds with his instrument as Ross had succeeded with the harpsichord. (Ross actually used several different instruments over the course of his own recording project.) Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of either release is likely to attract a relatively limited number of listeners. Still, those wondering whether or not they want to get their feet wet in the entire swimming pool, so to speak, might wish to be reminded of an old advertising slogan that The New York Times hauled out for its Sunday edition: “You don’t have to read it all, but it’s good to know it’s all there!”

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