Domenico SCARLATTI: Vol. 1 thru Vol. 11 – Fernando Valenti, harpsichord / Wanda Landowska (1934), Playel harpsichord – Pristine Audio Nos. PAKM010 thru PKM027 & PAKM 004 for Landowska CD – [avail. in mono from Pristine Audio] *****:
An amazing remastering of probably the best D. Scarlatti Sonatas ever.
Domenico Scarlatti was one of the most amazing composers ever; the harpsichord (in spite of its lack of dynamism) is a fabulous-sounding instrument in the proper music. He was primarily an Italian (the son of Allesandro Scarlatti) a monk at the Spanish court at Escorial, who wrote over 550 little sonatas full of extraordinary energy and elan (they keep discovering new ones which is partly why there is no complete set of all of them), written in pairs to contrast and complementary to one another.
Landowska had a metal-sounding board revival harpsichord which she convinced piano-maker Playel to build and offer for sale. She single-handly inserted the harpsichord into the music of the 20th century; in addition to these 1934 78s of Scarlatti (only 500 sets were pressed) convinced several famous composers to write harpsichord concerti. The speed at which she takes her favorite 20 Scarlatti sonatas is often astonishing, and the transfers made in the Pristine studios by owner Andrew Rose are superb. I only wish he could work his magic on some of the RCA 78s cut by Landowska in her home, which suffered more from recording quality than the instrument used (at least in RCA’s reissues on LP and CD).
The Westminster label released a series by the great harpsichordist Fernando Valenti in the early 1950s. These amount now to 11 volumes, which have been remastered by Peter Harrison for Pristine Audio, and having had the original LPs I would say that one doesn’t even notice the absence of stereo, these performances are so excellent. Perhaps they are the best of the Scarlatti Sonatas. Many other of the sonatas are still available on stereo Westminister LPs, though Valenti died before he could record all 550. The Pristine CDs complement the original LPs, and Valenti ranges all over the sonatas in his recordings, so don’t try to organize them into chronological order.
These are much muscular and rich-sounding than the set on Erato by the late harpsichordist Scott Ross. His recordings came out of a request by the French radio to record all of the Scarlatti sonatas for the 300th Anniversary of his birth in 1965 (not released in the U.S. until 2014). His performances sound rather held back and routine, altho he did record the 550 sonatas for Erato. There are also several sets recorded on the piano (a great disappointment for most harpsichord fans, except for the few done by Vladimir Horowitz—whom Ross was said to despise); the set on piano on Naxos is not bad and well-priced, but they too ran out of steam at volume 13 or 14. There is also a good set on five CDs by pianist Carlo Grante on the Music & Arts label. Though Valenti’s harpsichord is not identified, I think it is a double-manual Challis revival harpsichord, like my single-manual instrument. Westminster only got out about two dozen with their series of LPs – I once had all of them, but these 11 volumes are so good I don’t miss them at all.