Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

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Belle
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Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Belle » Mon Apr 10, 2017 5:52 pm

The sonatas of Scarlatti were written for harpsichord or clavichord and when we hear them on a modern concert grand today they can have very a different impact or they can sound similar to the original instruments of the time.

I've just been comparing different performances of the sparkling D Minor sonata, K27. The first is one I have on CD, by Perahia, which is tender, delicate and warm and very much a creature of the modern concert grand:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKQ0bf2XoYM

This from Scott Ross on harpsichord is just too slow, IMO: it loses momentum and charm, being rather ponderous. This isn't what I'd regard as a particularly warm reading, but it's nicely decorated without being intrusive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfShtCIe8vg

Compare it to the more virtuosic, much faster but rather cold Michelangeli. No doubt he was conveying the music as he imagined it might have been performed in Scarlatti's time, albeit with a concert grand:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FiZc7kbrWw

This one is interesting. A performance on harpsichord but with some rubato and more like the Perahia example - more expressive, IMO, than the Michelangeli:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4vLOQVSI0s

A lot of music written for the harpsichord can sound cold and brittle, but the above performance shows that it need not be. But what has the musician done to warm it up? I think he is using some of the conventions of the modern piano to interpret the music of the past. The HIP acolytes wouldn't be impressed!!

Holden Fourth
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Holden Fourth » Tue Apr 11, 2017 1:54 am

Piano for me and this piece illustrates why.

The two harpsichord performances are played slowly compared to the piano. Listening to themI suspect that if they were played at the faster speed, the longer decay of the plucked string would create a blur of tones.

Dynamic range is the other reason. The section where the left hand crosses the right allows the pianist to emphasise the bass or treble notes and also create either a legato or staccato effect. All this adds to the music IMO especially where the two descending bass notes are played softer than note played by the left hand giving a call and response effect. This would be very hard to do on a harpsichord.

John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Tue Apr 11, 2017 6:45 am

Most of Scarlatti's sonatas were composed for harpsichord, some requiring two manuals, though a few were originally for piano or even organ. As Holden Fourth says, playing them on the piano makes possible nuances of dynamics and phrasing not available on the harpsichord, and many great pianists dating back to the 19th century have played them. But the harpsichord allows and encourages striking variations in tone color which even the most colorful of pianists can at best only suggest. In short, not piano or harpsichord, but harpsichord and piano.

Belle asks of the Belder recording, "what has the musician done to warm it up?" Playing it much more slowly, I suppose. Scarlatti's sonatas are music for virtuosos, and Belder's playing is decidedly and I'm sure deliberately non-virtuosic, especially in comparison with Michelangeli's. In this case I prefer the pianist.

More generally, a lot depends on the particular make of harpsichord used. One of my favorite harpsichordists, George Malcolm, favored modern instruments by Goff and Goble with a somewhat mellow tone; Wanda Landowska, another favorite, played a Pleyel instrument whose basic sound is brighter and more brilliant. First, Malcolm:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BofgiuMVTjE

Now, Landowska:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DAtkqHf9iZ8

Both exploit the contrasts in tone available from the two manuals and/or from stops; indeed, Landowska rather overdoes it. Now, Dinu Lipatti plays the same sonata as the first of Landowska's, called "Cortege."


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Kw4guiNipE

Exquisite piano playing, for sure, and I wouldn't sacrifice it in favor of Malcolm's or Landowska's - but I wouldn't sacrifice theirs in favor of Lipatti either.

Now, just for fun, the earliest Scarlatti recording I have, Josef Hofmann in 1923 playing two sonatas in the edition by the 19th century virtuoso Carl Tausig, "Pastorale and Capriccio":


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1yLi7gr5yqw
John Francis

arepo
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by arepo » Tue Apr 11, 2017 9:42 am

I must confess to the simple truth that I do not like the sound of a harpsichord, finding it to be too metallic, too harsh and lacking any audible subtlety. The sound of Scarlatti's superb sonatas on the modern piano are totally gratifying to my ear and I suspect that if the modern day piano existed when Scarlatti was composing, he would have written for that instrument and not the limited harpsichord.
Of the scores of recordings I have, my favorites include:
Dubravka Tomsic, Eteri Andjaparidze, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Horowitz, Christian Zacharias, Anthony diBonaventura, and Sergei Babayan.

cliftwood

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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Tue Apr 11, 2017 9:59 am

Sir Thomas Beecham said that a harpsichord sounds like two skeletons copulating on a tin roof. :mrgreen:
arepo wrote:I suspect that if the modern day piano existed when Scarlatti was composing, he would have written for that instrument and not the limited harpsichord.
Scarlatti died the year after Mozart was born; the piano was well enough developed that Mozart and Haydn could write dozens of masterpieces for it; and while you personally don't like the sound of a harpsichord, in crucial ways it is less limited than the single-keyboard monochromatic piano.
John Francis

maestrob
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by maestrob » Tue Apr 11, 2017 11:25 am

arepo wrote:
Tue Apr 11, 2017 9:42 am
I must confess to the simple truth that I do not like the sound of a harpsichord, finding it to be too metallic, too harsh and lacking any audible subtlety. The sound of Scarlatti's superb sonatas on the modern piano are totally gratifying to my ear and I suspect that if the modern day piano existed when Scarlatti was composing, he would have written for that instrument and not the limited harpsichord.
Of the scores of recordings I have, my favorites include:
Dubravka Tomsic, Eteri Andjaparidze, Andras Schiff, Vladimir Horowitz, Christian Zacharias, Anthony diBonaventura, and Sergei Babayan.

cliftwood
You left out Yevgeny Sudbin and Maria Tipo, as both artists are in our libraries I know for sure. 😉

JohnF: You may prefer the harpsichord as a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the piano, also as a matter of personal taste.

Belle: Your examples were most edifying and worthy of discussion. For my ears, the piano allows a greater variety of tone quality within a phrase. I wish that you could sample Horowitz, Maria Tipo & Sudbin, and then comment on them: I find their playing non-pareil in this repertoire. Scarlatti requires a certain sparkle, a certain humorous touch, and these pianists have it in spades.

John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Tue Apr 11, 2017 12:31 pm

maestrob wrote:
Tue Apr 11, 2017 11:25 am
JohnF: You may prefer the harpsichord as a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the piano, also as a matter of personal taste.
You can't have read my long post beginning "Most of Scarlatti's sonatas were composed for harpsichord..." In it I described the objective advantages of the piano as well as the harpsichord and concluded in favor of both. So I guess I need to say the same thing again.

Which I prefer depends on who's playing and how, more than on what instrument. Many great pianists have played some Scarlatti and I'm glad to hear them. The number of great harpsichordists is smaller - necessarily, as the number of harpsichordists is smaller - and I wouldn't rate a pedestrian harpsichordist's Scarlatti above Lipatti's or Horowitz's.

That said, it can't be denied that a performance on the piano, however fine, indeed especially when it's very fine, is necessarily some distance removed from Scarlatti. Dynamic nuances, legato phrasing, the bringing out of inner voices, are not possible on an 18th century harpsichord and therefore are not part of the music, as they certainly are in Mozart and Chopin, but rather the performer's creative (some would say anachronistic) overlay on it.

As you know, I'm all in favor of creative music-making, so that's fine with me - but I listen for different qualities in performances in the different media. More literal-minded listeners, if they're consistent, should have a problem with Scarlatti played pianistically. I'd say that's their problem; it certainly isn't mine. :)
John Francis

jserraglio
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by jserraglio » Tue Apr 11, 2017 5:40 pm

I listen to Scarlatti on piano, harpsichord, fortepiano, even guitar.
I like Pierre Hantai on harpsichord.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=hBHYd98lLh4



Robert Casadesus and Antonio di Bonaventura (Connoisseur Society) on piano.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=Wf7ohoAB5-E



https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qS85wcdcxNk


Lance
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Lance » Wed Apr 12, 2017 1:17 pm

Well, I like it either way, but have a preference for the piano. Among the finest recordings I have ever heard on the piano are those recorded by Horowitz for Columbia/Sony Classical. One doesn't know for sure, even given the earlier pianos available during Scarlatti's times, if he actually "heard" in his mind what could not be transferred in subtleties to the harpsichord or clavichord. Those who have a penchant for music heard on instruments of their time -- and there are plenty of them -- would prefer to hear the music for the instrument originally written. But I also believe that if the modern-day pianos were available to them, one wonders how Beethoven or Mozart (or many others) would have written differently knowing the full capability of the best pianos available between 1900 and the present day. On the other hand, Beethoven would not have been able to even hear a modern concert grand piano if he were writing his "Hammerklavier" piano sonata today. Fortunately, we can pick and choose today how we want to hear most of our music.

Among my favourite pianists of all is Clara Haskil. She also made a recording of Scarlatti sonatas [Westminster label] that proved to be one of the most UNinteresting recordings I've ever heard her make. So, again, it's the performer, the instrument, the execution, the perception of the music, etc., et al.
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John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Thu Apr 13, 2017 1:48 am

Lance wrote:I also believe that if the modern-day pianos were available to them, one wonders how Beethoven or Mozart (or many others) would have written differently knowing the full capability of the best pianos available between 1900 and the present day.
Beethoven and Mozart composed piano concertos that need a few more notes at the top of the keyboard to complete upward runs. Since the notes weren't there, they worked around their instruments' limitations, Mozart elegantly and Beethoven by ducking down an octave. (Slavishly following Beethoven's score in that passage is not musically intelligent; Mozart's concerto should be played as written.) In that respect, no doubt they would like the "modern" piano as it took final form more than a century ago, and maybe even the Bösendorfer with its extra notes at the bottom.

But it's still essentially the same instrument they played and wrote for. The piano is as fundamentally different from the harpsichord as from the organ, having only the keyboard in common. There's no reason to imagine that Scarlatti was in any way dissatisfied with the instrument on which he was a virtuoso and for which he composed hundreds of virtuoso pieces, any more than Mozart or Beethoven would have wanted a keyboard electronic synthesizer to play and compose for. That is impossible to know or even to make an intelligent guess.
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maestrob
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by maestrob » Thu Apr 13, 2017 1:53 am

jserraglio: you made my day with those Scarlatti examples! Many thanks........ :wink:

arepo
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by arepo » Thu Apr 13, 2017 9:52 am

I failed to mention a superb recording of the Scarlatti Sonatas by Mikail Pletnev, an artist who unfortunately as abandoned his piano career to become a conductor.
What a waste. :(
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Holden Fourth » Fri Apr 14, 2017 3:16 am

arepo wrote:
Thu Apr 13, 2017 9:52 am
I failed to mention a superb recording of the Scarlatti Sonatas by Mikail Pletnev, an artist who unfortunately as abandoned his piano career to become a conductor.
What a waste. :(
cliftwood
Another excellent CD of Scarlatti sonatas is by the little known Mordecai Shehori. I also give a strong thumbs up to Cliftwoods Sergei Babayan recommendation.

I'd also add Marcelle Meyer to the list, recorded in 1947 it must be one of the first complete albums devoted solely to the sonatas.

John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Fri Apr 14, 2017 3:46 am

Holden Fourth wrote:
Fri Apr 14, 2017 3:16 am
I'd also add Marcelle Meyer to the list, recorded in 1947 it must be one of the first complete albums devoted solely to the sonatas.
Nope - in the 1930s EMI recorded two albums, 20 sonatas each, played by Wanda Landowska. Also, the harpsichordist Yella Pessl was recorded by Columbia in an album of 14 sonatas. By the time Marcelle Meyer made her recordings for the minor label Discophiles Françaises, the major record companies had already uncovered a market for Scarlatti and were busily providing for it. Other sets from about that time were by Robert Casadesus, Soulima Stravinsky, and harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe.
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jserraglio
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by jserraglio » Fri Apr 14, 2017 6:33 am

More favorite Scarlatti by Anthony di Bonaventura on Connoisseur Society and Centaur:

https://www.youtube.com/results?q=Anton ... +scarlatti

And listening to 19 Scarlatti sonatas by Sergei Babyan based on the recs above.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cD4incf ... N7TFAY2cDa


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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by jbuck919 » Mon Apr 17, 2017 8:34 am

I've always preferred the modern piano, just as I do for Bach's solo keyboard works (not counting organ of course). For some reason, add instruments and I do a 180. I can barely stand Bach on the piano, whether it is for a concerto, an instrumental sonata, or heaven help us anything involving a continuo. I have never been able to explain this contradiction in my taste.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

maestrob
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by maestrob » Mon Apr 17, 2017 12:08 pm

jbuck919 wrote:
Mon Apr 17, 2017 8:34 am
I've always preferred the modern piano, just as I do for Bach's solo keyboard works (not counting organ of course). For some reason, add instruments and I do a 180. I can barely stand Bach on the piano, whether it is for a concerto, an instrumental sonata, or heaven help us anything involving a continuo. I have never been able to explain this contradiction in my taste.
Interesting that you feel this way, John. I echo your sentiments, and your taste. Like you, I've never been able to explain why.

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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by jserraglio » Sat Apr 22, 2017 6:37 am

Charles Rosen plays Scarlatti on the Siena pianoforte
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yxes0qmNVcs



01. Sonata in c (K.247) [5:17]
02. Sonata in E (K.134) [4:36]
03. Sonata in C (K.242) [4:06]
04. Scarlatti - Sonata in F (K.44) [5:53]
05. Scarlatti - Sonata in D (K.140) [4:10]
06. Scarlatti - Sonata in G (K.125) [2:27]

1955-56 Counterpoint-Esoteric LP. Reissued by Boston Skyline 1995, OOP.
Info on the instrument http://www.talkclassical.com/37896-sien ... forte.html

maestrob
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by maestrob » Mon Apr 24, 2017 12:16 pm

What a fascinating sound for an instrument. No wonder Rosen wanted to record it. I never knew of this recording! Thanks for posting it. :)

John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Mon Apr 24, 2017 1:18 pm

Esoteric Records (that's the name of the label) made a series of recordings in the mid-'50s with the Siena pianoforte with various pianists - besides Rosen they were Marisa Regules, Anatole Kitain, Kathryn Deguire, and Grace Castagnetta. All were little known or unknown at the time, and I don't know that they were particularly fans of the Siena piano, most likely they were glad to have the chance to record on whatever instrument. Certainly, Rosen showed no interest in period instruments later in his career, and doesn't comment on the Siena piano in any of his books that I've read.
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jserraglio
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by jserraglio » Mon Apr 24, 2017 2:19 pm


Belle
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Belle » Mon Apr 24, 2017 8:24 pm

Thanks for the links. I must say I'm not exactly enamoured with the sound of the Siena Fortepiano. Sometimes it seems to go out of tune as well.

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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by Lance » Tue Apr 25, 2017 1:29 pm

Belle: The first time I heard the Sienna instrument, I was quite entranced and fascinated. I have always had the utmost respect for Charles Rosen, his recordings and writings, and if someone like him records on a basically unknown instrument, I figured he must have something to say. The only thing I might recommend is to hear that recording a few times to get the ears accustomed to the sound. I had the original LP (I seem to think it might have been on the Counterpoint/Esoteric label). But it has since been reissued on the Boston Skyline label [131]. Not sure if it is currently available.
Belle wrote:
Mon Apr 24, 2017 8:24 pm
Thanks for the links. I must say I'm not exactly enamoured with the sound of the Siena Fortepiano. Sometimes it seems to go out of tune as well.
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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John F
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Re: Scarlatti: Piano or Harpsichord?

Post by John F » Tue Apr 25, 2017 5:33 pm

From what I've read about it, it's less remarkable as a musical instrument than as an elaborately ornamental piece of furniture for a rich man's salon. An early 19th century piano, it was in a class by itself in the mid-1950s when these recordings were made, but nowadays restored and replica fortepianos of that vintage are a dime a dozen. At that time, Charles Rosen was in his 20s, and neither in that recording nor in a Town Hall recital a few years later (Beethoven, Debussy, Schumann) did he strike me as having something distinctive to say. That came later.
John Francis

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