What might the target audience for a set of the complete Scarlatti Sonatas, released in 12 batches of three CDs each, look like? Clearly a baroque-enthused music lover with the aim of having listened to each of Scarlatti’s 555 sonatas at least once. Probably married to a wife that would –quite understandably– threaten with divorce proceedings were he (and it would likely be a male – women would find more reasonable ways to spend the money) to show up at home with all 36 discs at once. If it were not so, he would already have come through the door with Sott Ross’ “Scarlatti Cube” when it was re-issued in 2005.
Those who wish to just sample Scarlatti can look to single discs of many other and more famous artists with a selection of the most attractive sonatas, rather than purchase one of these twelve very inexpensive sets in their, unfortunately ungainly looking, double jewel cases.
That the sonatas are arranged in the order of their Kirkpatrick number (the Longo and Pestelli numbers are not given) won’t help the novice as much as it will make life easier for those trying to track down a specific sonata. And herein might lie the main attraction as long as the sonatas come in these space-robbing boxes: Finding and hearing a specific work, and as the answer for completists who want to plug a specific, painfully gaping hole in their collection.
These original recordings by the Brilliant Classics label are a major achievement, but they are hardly alone in the catalog. Apart from the aforementioned Scott Ross survey on Warner, there is Richard Lester on Nimbus (the most complete collection of them to date); like Ross’ and Belder’s, played on harpsichord(s). This set, too, was finished in time for the Scarlatti Semiquincentennial.
Meanwhile Pierre Hantai has issued one Scarlatti CD on naïve and three volumes of what may or may not be a projected cycle on the Mirare label: Luxuriously beautiful issues and containing some of the finest Scarlatti playing on the harpsichord. If you consider Belder, don’t bother comparing to Hantai. The purpose of the Brilliant budget collection isn’t the same as the French production where the three CDs would coast you nearly as much as the complete Belder box (when caught on sale).
D.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas v.I, Pierre Hantai
What speaks for Belder? The price and helpful organization of the sonatas would be of little use if the playing were not up to par. Happily it is. Belder, a prize-winning harpsichord player and conductor of Musica Antiphon, plays his two modern copies of a Ruckers and a Giusti harpsichord with panache, fleet fingers, and consummate skill. I’ve not heard Lester, but Belder compares well to Ross – wherever Ross is modestly inspired. I’ve only heard the latest nine CDs in the three volumes – 10 to 12 – here discussed, which were all recorded in the Spring of 2007. That’s a lot of learning, playing, and recording to do – but still nothing compared to the rush with which Scott Ross recorded his entire cycle in a year and a half. Critical ears will inevitably notice Ross having some less felicitous moments, the kind of which I did not hear in Belder. But Ross, at his best, also plays with the kind of affection and in such an affecting way that the best of Belder in these sets cannot compete.
Where the goal is simply to have all the sonatas in very fine readings, Belder can compete with Ross and might beat him simply on price. This only goes for the complete set, available in a space saving paper box, though. Collecting all 12 volumes in the jewel cases would be less pleasing aesthetically and take too much shelf space. Comparison of individual sonatas does not serve Belder terribly well because the ears will cherry-pick from the best performances (piano or harpsichord, I’m agnostic on the issue) when doing so. So Belder’s K520 [L86, P362] in G-major (on the Giusti copy) might come across as dragging heavily when compared to Pletnev (piano, Virgin). Ross’ K491 [L164, P484] and 492 [L14, P443] (both in D-major) are lighter and spikier interpretations, more explosive and dynamic.
But taken on his own, Belder does not give an impression of listlessness. Listen only to K457 [L292, P442]– to mention one out of almost a hundred examples. Calling his playing competent and capable, enjoyable and energetic is decidedly not an attempt of damning with faint praise. Consider this: I first listened to all nine discs in two listening sessions of roughly four and five hours each. The fact that this did not bore me to tears or drive me half insane, but instead became, if anything, more enjoyable as it went on should speak volumes about the quality of Belder’s approach, hampered though it might be from the use of only two different instruments. There are numerous Scarlatti interpretations on the harpsichord over which I prefer Belder: Kirkpatrick (Archiv), Leonhardt, Newman (both Sony/RCA), Rousset (Decca), for example. And even the very highly regarded Kipnis (Angel).
Yes, more color and more variety might have served Belder well. A more spirited and individual approach to the sonatas would have livened up matters here and there. For that, the Scarlatti aficionado will have to go elsewhere, which he or she might as well. For getting to know more Scarlatti sonatas at a ‘nice-price’, Belder is an obvious choice. Another quibble, though: The liner notes are pathetic (the same two-page fold-out in each set), even for the money-saving Brilliant Classics standards. The layout is as ugly as most of the Brilliant discs were ten years ago (when the series got under way). To make these recordings attractive to a much wider group of potential buyers Brilliant should strongly consider re-issuing the set in twelve or nine slim paper boxes and somewhat spruced-up liner notes. Just like their “Scottish Songs of Haydn” collection, for example.
Volume X includes: K 428-475
Volume XI includes: K 476-519
Volume XII includes: K 520-555
Brilliant Classics 93575, 93576, 93577