Domenico Scarlatti’s legacy of 555 sonatas for harpsichord represent a vast treasure trove. His works fascinate through their originality, their seemingly endless richness of invention, their daring harmonics and their visionary use of the
most remote tonalities. Today Scarlatti has once again established a firm place in the pianistic repertory. But the question preoccupying me was the influence his music had on the composers of the Romantic era. If we cast an eye over the countlessrecordings of transcriptions and arrangements of his contemporary Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), it becomes even clearer that in Scarlatti’s case, we find hardly anything comparable.
A fascinating process of investigation eventually led me to Carl Tausig (1841–1871), Ignaz Friedman (1882–1948) and Walter Gieseking (1895–1956). All three immersed themselves in Scarlatti’s sonatas and came up with very different creative offshoots of their own. If Tausig tended to ‘adjust’ some of the original works for ‘the concert halls of today’, Friedman played with Scarlatti’s humorous and diabolic side, while Gieseking went so far as to create a late-Romantic chaconne based on one of the Italian master’s themes
This unusual project would not have been possible without the generous support of Sabine Fallenstein and Peter Stieber (SWR), Matthew Cosgrove (ONYX Classics) and Thierry Scherz (EOS Concerts). Nor could I have made this record without the invaluable help of the outstanding recording team led by Ralf Kolbinger (producer), Angela Öztanil (sound engineer) and Ulrich Charisius (piano technician). I would like to take this opportunity to offer them all my heartfelt thanks. The discovery of the Chaconne on a theme by Scarlatti proved a particular challenge, and I would
not have succeeded in recording the piece without the help of André Kerber, to whom I would also like to extend my sincere thanks.
This CD is a voyage of discovery through the sound-world of Domenico Scarlatti, at the same time presenting his music through the perspective of three great pianist-composers…
The history of the art of transcription is a long and noble one, but what do we mean by the term ‘transcription’? And what, in fact, is its purpose? The word is most commonly applied to a piece of music made suitable for forces other than those for which it was originally conceived (we think of works like Bach’s transcriptions for keyboard of some of Vivaldi’s violin concertos, the various arrangements for symphony orchestra of Bach’s organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, or Beethoven’s arrangement of his Violin Concerto as a piano concerto). Sometimes, a transcription is made to facilitate study or domestic performance, as in the vocal score of an opera. At others, it can mean the rewriting of a piece in the same medium but in a style that is easier to play or, as illustrated by the transcriptions on this disc, infinitely more difficult.
For pianists and pianophiles the definition of a transcription that first springs to mind is an elaborate, embellished and often technically challenging arrangement of one composer’s work by another. Liszt, perhaps the greatest and
certainly the most prolific of transcribers in the 19th century, made transcriptions of complete symphonies, operatic themes, songs and organ works. Some were designed to dazzle his audiences, while others were written to introduce
certain works which the public would rarely have the opportunity of hearing.
Liszt was just the most distinguished pianist-composer in this field. Others included his contemporary Sigismund Thalberg; Ferruccio Busoni, Sergei Rachmaninov, Leopold Godowsky, Vladimir Horowitz and Georges Cziffra are some
of the more famous piano transcribers from later generations; in our own time, Earl Wild, Marc-André Hamelin, Arcadi Volodos and Stephen Hough are among those who have revived the tradition. Two important names are missing from this list: Carl Tausig and Ignaz Friedman, both of them unfamiliar, perhaps, except to piano connoisseurs, both of them great pianists and prolific transcribers, both of them drawn to the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757).
So what attracted these two giants of the piano, living half a century apart, to Scarlatti’s music? The Italian composer held various distinguished posts in Rome before moving to Lisbon in 1719 to become court harpsichordist to the King
of Portugal and teacher of his talented daughter the Infanta Maria Barbara. Scarlatti followed her to Madrid in 1729 when she married the heir to the Spanish throne. Here he remained, in comparative isolation on the Iberian peninsula,
for the rest of his life. And it was here, in the ideal environment created by the music-loving royal couple, that his genius flourished and where he wrote the majority of the 555 short keyboard sonatas that give him a place among the immortals of music.
Astonishingly, there is not a dud among them. The sonatas introduced many new technical devices, such as crossed hands, rapid repetitions and double-note passages, while the music ranges from imitations of Spanish guitars and folk idioms to whirlwind prestos, keyboard acrobatics, sensuous, elegiac song-movements and witty musical jokes. ‘He sensed technique before anyone else,’ was the astute comment of one writer, ‘and he sometimes foreshadowed his successors with uncanny precision,’ before characterising Scarlatti as ‘The Liszt of his time … the Puck of musicians; his
music teases, laughs, pretends to weep, all in an ecstasy of pagan freedom.’
Tausig became the favourite pupil of Franz Liszt after he arrived aged 14 in Weimar to study with the master. His technical feats were said to be phenomenal but it was not until 1865, after he had married and settled in Berlin, that he was acknowledged as a master of the first order. At the height of his career, he died of typhoid fever in Leipzig. Several of his transcriptions were immensely popular for many years – Bach’s organ Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565, Schumann’s Der Contrabandiste, Weber’s Invitation to the Dance and Schubert’s Marche militaire D733 – but none were played or recorded more frequently than his arrangements of two Scarlatti sonatas: K9 in D minor, which Tausig transposed into E minor and titled ‘Pastorale’; and K20 in E major, which he called ‘Capriccio’. Eugen d’Albert,
Mark Hambourg, Josef Hofmann, Rachmaninov and Alexander Brailowsky are just a handful of the famous names who recorded them.
Not as well known are three further Scarlatti-Tausig transcriptions: two sonatas in G minor, one of which is included here, and a Sonata in F minor. These five are generally thought to be the complete Scarlatti-Tausig ‘canon’. Yet there
is a sixth – one of the Sonata in C major, K487, almost unknown and which is not mentioned in contemporary collections of Tausig’s transcriptions. The earliest reference to it that this writer has discovered is a Schott edition dated 1904. The distinguished Liszt pupil Emil von Sauer included it in a volume published in 1905 described as ‘Aus meinem Concert-Repertoire’. Clearly it enjoyed (some) circulation.
Friedman, born in Kraków, Poland, studied with Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna before launching his career in 1904 (by playing three major concertos in the same evening). His many recordings are evidence of a beguiling singing tone and
a technique that even Horowitz envied. He composed many short works and effective transcriptions. Friedman’s ‘Gigue’ was published in 1914 though he had certainly been playing a version of it for a decade prior to this: a probable first performance is listed in Kraków in 1904. It is a highly elaborate, chromatic treatment of Scarlatti’s Sonata in G major, K523. Somewhat surprisingly it is dedicated to his fellow pianist Vladimir de Pachmann, though, given the latter’s predisposition to humorous eccentricity, Friedman’s marking of presto, con umore makes him an apt dedicatee.
One wonders if Pachmann ever played it. Friedman’s (as opposed to Tausig’s) ‘Pastorale’ is a reworking of Scarlatti’s Sonata in F major K446, transposed into D major and dressed, like its companion, in exotic Godowskyian harmonies.
And so to the longest – and assuredly least known – of all the works on this disc.
Walter Gieseking’s Chaconne on a theme by Scarlatti uses the beautiful Sonata in D minor, K32, the final work played by Joseph Moog on this disc, to which Scarlatti gave the title ‘Aria’ and one of the few sonatas in a slow tempo. Nowhere near as prolific a composer and transcriber as Tausig or Friedman, Gieseking, remembered chiefly as a pre-eminent interpreter of Debussy and Ravel, was a staunch champion of contemporary music, playing a great deal of works by the likes of Hindemith, Krenek,
Pfitzner and Schoenberg. His empathy with their advanced harmonic language is plain to hear in what are, in essence, 21 short (eight-bar) seamlessly connected variations on Scarlatti’s plaintive theme. Though Gieseking’s harmonies may
have been foreign to Scarlatti’s ears, the Italian would surely have been delighted by such adventurous and sophisticated writing for the keyboard.
© Jeremy Nicholas, 2013
NOTE: Each sonata is known by its K (sometimes Kk or Kp) number, after the chronological catalogue made by the American harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick in 1953; this superseded the previous system of L numbers, allotted by
Alessandro Longo in 1906 when he produced the complete sonatas in 11 volumes.