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Some Scarlatti: Belder, Ross & Hantaï

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D.Scarlatti, Complete Sonatas, Vol.X, Pieter Jan-Belder

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D.Scarlatti, Complete Sonatas, Vol.XI, Pieter Jan-Belder

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D.Scarlatti, Complete Sonatas, Vol.XII, Pieter Jan-Belder

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D.Scarlatti, Complete Sonatas (36 CDs), Pieter Jan-Belder

(released February 5, 2008)
Brilliant Classics 93546

Just in time to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Domenico Scarlatti’s death last year, Pieter-Jan Belder finished his cycle of the Scarlatti sonatas on 36 CDs.

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 Scott 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 therein 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.

Naxos is in the process of issuing the complete cycle played on the piano – with each disc taken by a different soloist. An admirable task that has already produced a few marvels. The Italian Stradivarius label has been working on a complete set, too, which currently stands at volume 10 and volume 11 being planned for later this year. It is centered around the baroque specialist Ottavio Dantone. (This, like the Lester set, will include the sonatas for keyboard and other instruments and have those sonatas written for organ, rather than the harpsichord, played on their instrument of intent.)

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D.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas v.I, Pierre Hantaï

available at ArkivMusic
D.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas v.II, Pierre Hantaï

available at ArkivMusic
D.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas v.III , Pierre Hantaï

available at ArkivMusic
D.Scarlatti, Keyboard Sonatas (Naive), Pierre Hantaï

available at ArkivMusic
D.Scarlatti, Le Plus Belles Sonatas, Scott Ross

Meanwhile Pierre Hantaï 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 Hantaï. The purpose of the Brilliant budget collection isn’t the same as the French production where the three CDs would cost you nearly as much as the complete Belder box (when caught on sale).

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 underway). 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


Carlos said...

Wonder if you/anybody can help me solve this.
I have purchased this entire Belder collection and very much enjoy it but CD 1 from Vol. XI has a defective track (#9-K 484) and the seller replaced the disk and still the same defect was found!!!!
This must be a factory/manufacturing flaw and there is no address given by Brilliant records for customer inquiries or service.

jfl said...

Unfortunately I cannot - except to say that the track on that CD does not seem to be defective on my issue.
So maybe that warrants exchanging it once more? Or if you have the entire collection, perhaps you can trade the jewel boxes off and get the all-encompassing box instead?

Carlos said...

Thanks for your reply......jfl
There is a review on on the entire collection that comments on this:

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Wonderful value, April 27 2008
By Phillip Faulds "kultur konsumer" (Toronto) - See all my reviews

Any Scarlatti harpsichord sonata lover must purchase this set. It stands up against all other complete and selected recordings of this music that I have heard, and at the price, it is simply a steal.
Great sound, interesting choice of instruments, splendid sensitive performances, maybe a tad cautious on some of the "crazy" sonatas, but on the whole, an amazing achievement and the best bargain in Baroque.
If it were a regular-priced set, I would maybe give it 4 stars, but at the price, it exceeds all reasonable expectations.
BTW, I have found one defective CD in my set and am past the date of no return, but even including purchasing another 3 CD set, this is money very well spent.

JFL: Could you please hear again the track (#9-K 484) and try notice if just about 39 seconds into the track there's a brief silent "spot"?
Unfortunately I purchased the boxed sets from different sellers on Ebay and can only exchange for another set. But as already explained, the seller replaced the disk and still the same defect was found.
There must be a way to contact the manufacturer!!!! They could just post the corrected track on their website for any customer to download it and so re-make the CD on their computer.
Anybody can contact me on this subject at: