Baroque period music, Domenico Scarlatti, Domenico Scarlatti Sonata in E Major K. 380, playing Domenico Scarlatti sonatas on the piano, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten, Vladimir Horowitz, word press,, you tube, you tube video

Scarlatti Sonata in E Major, K. 380, the one Vladimir Horowitz loved to play

The great Vladimir Horowitz made this sonata almost a household word among pianists. Back in the 1950s, Ben Grauer, host of NBC’s “Recital Hall” introduced students from Juilliard who played at least 3 Scarlatti sonatas, following Volodya’s example. These Baroque selections were a necessary entrée to the main course of Classical, Romantic and Contemporary works. Programs were conservative in those days, but Chopin’s wish that Scarlatti’s music would be part of a serious pianist’s repertoire came true.

Today, there still exists the lingering controversy over whether to play Scarlatti (as well as Bach) on the piano when it was originally meant to be performed on the harpsichord.

The issue has ramifications for a modern-day pianist, who uses the sustain pedal frequently to enrich sonorities, to “orchestrate” a work, and often to create special effects, as in the realm of impressionism (Debussy and Ravel)

When it comes to Scarlatti, however, some pianists feel tentative about using the pedal, or at least abusing it here and there. For the faster sonatas, it is hard to over pedal, so the matter draws little concern. ( In truth, there’s barely time to fuss with the pedal when playing presto, an extremely brisk tempo marking)

In Sonata in E Major, K. 380 there is probably a line to be drawn somewhere in the sand. The piece has a bell-like quality from the outset with the impossibly tricky trills that are immediately echoed. So perhaps a temptation to pedal lightly over the trills to make them shimmer is reasonable. The question remains, where to pedal in the rest of the composition without making it sound like it was born of the Romantic era.

Daniel Barenboim plays the Scarlatti Pastorale in D minor, with lots of pedal, and sometimes I like it that way, and at other times I want to hear the piece in a purer reading, without being bathed in sustain.

So having obsessed over the pedal for too many paragraphs, I decided that I would play the E Major with pedal, even though I’d been advised by a colleague in the know to stay off it.

In the universe of interpretation among pianists, there is always room for flexibility. Since Chopin’s prophecy has come true that Scarlatti’s music became part of the mainstream repertoire, it therefore has permission to have itself sized and fitted a pedal accoutrement.

The next challenge besides pedaling, is what tempo to take. That’s a gray area. If we use the harpsichord as reference, playing very fast on that instrument was a lot easier. The touch was considerably lighter making crossed hands, for example, in rapid tempo a lot less taxing on the fingers, wrists and arms.

For a more lilting, and tranquil sonata like the E Major, K. 380, it would seem inappropriate to rush it, or push it ardently forward. It has a spirit of calm reflection.

Finally, I agree with Mildred Portney Chase, author of Just Being at the Piano, that a performance rendered on one day, is just an ephemeral experience and may not be true for the next. (I don’t think she was referring to the You Tube medium, however, since the book predated its birth)

In the end, I have only to remind myself that Scarlatti’s music is joyful, regardless of what instrument is chosen to give voice to the composer spirit and intent.


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