Sunday, December 18, 2005

If you only buy thirty-four CDs this year - buy these .....


At the turn of the millennium BBC Radio 3 asked listeners to choose the greatest recording of the 20th century. The recording chosen was deservedly, but somewhat predictably, Solti's Ring cycle. The runners up were Carlos Klieber's interpretations of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies, the Britten War Requiem conducted by the composer, and English String Music conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, which includes Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

One recording that I considered to be a definite contender didn't even make the long list. But now the great news is my nomination has been re-released at budget price, and is easily my choice for the thirty-four best CDs of 2005.

Scott Ross was a musical maverick. He was born in Pittsburgh in 1951, and following the death of his father moved to France with his mother in 1964. He studied harpsichord at the Conservatoires of Nice and Paris, and won the prestigous Concours de Bruges, at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp in 1971. In 1971 he recrossed the Atlantic to begin a teaching career at the School of Music, Laval University, Quebec. While teaching there he made award-winning recordings of the complete Pièces de Clavecin by Rameau. Ross wore the same clothes as his students (even to perform), and his 'granny' spectacles aligned him more with John Lennon than Gustav Leonhardt. For a concert at Laval University, attended by the university chancellor and French Consul General, he wore jeans and a red lumberjack shirt. He was also self-effacing to a fault, explaining - "I started the Goldbergs 'cause I quit smoking and, to keep one's fingers busy, it's better than knitting".

He was a passionate collector of orchids, and his other hobbies included vulcanology, mineralogy, and mushrooms (!). His keyboard interests extended beyond the harpsichord. He played Debussy, Chopin and Ravel on the piano, and accompanied Schubert Lieder. The music of Brian Eno and Philip Glass were among his other passions, and he was a fan of the punk performance artist Nina Hagen. Comparisons with Glenn Gould are inevitable, but wide of the mark. In fact Ross had his own views on Gould, saying: "When I hear Glenn Gould, I say, he understood nothing about Bach. An artist who doesn't show himself in public has a problem. He's so much off-target that you'd need a 747 to take him back".

In 1983 Scott Ross took an indefinite sabbatical from Laval, and kicked it off with a recording of François Couperin's Suites pour le Clavecin. By now he had rented property in Assas, near Montpelier, in his beloved France. In 1984 he signed a five year recording contract with Erato , but also experierienced his first premonition of the illness that would ultimately kill him.

The main fruit of his new contract was the recording project that I consider to be one of the greatest in the history of recorded sound. The recording of the complete keyboard sonatas (555 in total) of Domenico Scarlatti started off as a broadcast project for Radio France to celebrate the composer's three hundredth anniverary in 1985. During the eighteen months of recording Ross (right) knew he had a fatal illness. Despite, or possibly because of, this he produced one of the great musical achievements of the 20th century. His playing is technically stunning, his scholarship is impeccable, but above this is a living, breathing and at times dancing testament. The whole staggering project is enhanced by superb recorded sound from the Radio France engineers, using three different venues and four harpsichords to avoid monotony.

Scott Ross began his recording of Scarlatti's 555 sonatas on 16th June 1984.

Ninety-eight sessions were required, and the last take was completed on 10th September 1985. In all, there had been eight thousand takes.

On 13th June 1989 Scott Ross died in Montpellier's Lapeyronie Hospital of an Aids-related illness, aged 38.

Ross' complete Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas have been re-issued by Warner Classics in a thirty-four CD budget priced box. In the UK they are selling for around £90 ($160) which is very little to pay for one of the great musical achievements of the last century. In fact last week I saw the set in HMV in London for £50 ($89) - stupidly cheap. Included is an excellent 254 page booklet which includes notes on all the sonatas.

For more Scott Ross resources see harpsichord maker Michel Proulx's
web site where a privately published English language biography is available, from which the quote in my article is taken. Follow this link for my article about this biography. There are also other French resources here.


Image credits: Harpsichord - Alan Gotto, Orchid - Mystic Arts Center , Scott Ross – Louvre.or.jp,
CD pack - Warner Classics. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Instruments of extreme beauty

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, thank you. 2 questions:

1. Do you have a link of the other recordings nominated/mentioned in the BBC poll you mention at the top? and

2. Is there another list of essential recordings of the sort discussed here on this site? I would love to see one.

Many thanks again for the great site.

Pliable said...

Anon, thanks for visiting On An Overgrown Path.

BBC Radio 3's CD Review programme ran the poll. The winner was Decca's classic recording of the Ring Cycle conducted by Sir Georg Solti.The runners up were Carlos Klieber's versions of Beethoven's Fifth and Seventh symphonies, the
War Requiem conducted by Britten and the recording of English String Music,conducted by Sir John Barbirolli,which includes Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

There is some more information via this link.

Thanks for asking for this list, I have also added it to the main post.

That selection should start an interesting debate!

I'll be back on your second question after a spot of Christmas shopping. But suggestions on lists of essential recordings very welcome from other readers.

Konrad von Swalwagner said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
illtemperedclavier said...

Many thanks to you both. Pliable, I look forward to your follow-up on this question.

(I figured I should give myself a name as well!)

Being a non-musician (and, additionally, an employee at a New York classical music organization) I find lists of suggested recordings to be perpetually interesting reading, both for the recordings that everyone seems to mention (the above-mentioned Kleiber and Giulini recordings come to mind) and for the outliers. It also contributes nicely to a long-held theory of mine concerning the similarities between lovers of classical and rock and/or jazz music, namely, the cult of certain recordings over others.

At any rate, I would love to see more discussion on this question, especially as concerns recordings of chamber and solo instrumental music, which I find tend to have less overlap than those of symphonic and operatic music.

Pliable said...

ITC, I turn now to your question about a list of essential recordings. The best stab at this in my view is the annual Gramophone The Classical CD & DVD Guide, which contains a 'Suggested Basic Library' of around 325 recordings. But I'm afraid this isn't available online, you will need to shell out for the book.

But I have two major problems with this type of list. First, they are inevitably the personal view of whoever draws up the list. For instance the Gramophone list omits what, for me, are two of the pinnacles of Western music, Wagner's Die Meistersingers and Parsifal. There is no Scarlatti, and no Flemish polyphonists etc etc ....

My second reservation is simply that I have never met anyone whose love of classical music has either been sparked, or enhanced, by these 'essential recording' lists. The riches of classical music can only be uncovered by exploration, and finding out what you don't like, as well as being told what you should like.

I have a section in my study of densely packed CDs which are my 'rarely listened' to collection. I don't regret buying them, and sometimes one will move from it to the main collection as my tastes develop. But without music by Frederic Rzewski, Franz Schmidt or Nicholas Maw, to name three selected at random, I wouldn't have developed my love of Maxwell Davies and Guillaume de Machaut, to name two of my 'essential composers'.

So my personal view is that it is very important to explore the 'non-basic library', and that's really what An Overgrown Path is all about.

Pliable said...

Wonderful to see my article on Scott Ross and the Scarlatti Sonatas getting coverage over on the John Lennon News site.

Now that is what I mean by encouraging John Lennon fans to explore the catalogue ......

illtemperedclavier said...

Great discussion. To respond as well as I can to some of your points:

Re: the Gramophone guide, I'm both an owner and a fan of the 2005 Classical CD & DVD Guide, with scattered reservations. To clarify what may have been a slight miscommunication on my part, my fondness is less for the "Suggested Basic Library" *repertory* lists that you mentioned, and more for the list of "100 Essential Recordings" (or *performances*, or whatever their preferred nomenclature is--the book is regrettably not in front of me at the moment). That is, I'm less interested in hearing whether someone thinks the Beethoven piano sonatas should be part of someone's library (of course they should!) than whether that person prefers the interpretation of Schnabel, Pollini, Fischer, Kempff, et al. (An example of which, incidentally, I've found the "Third Ear" guide to be most interesting to read.)

Re: your two major problems with this type of list. I disagree not at all that such exercises are inevitably personal or subjective reflections of the person compiling that list--after all, what else could they be?--nor with your unhappiness regarding certain aesthetic or nationalistic prejudices on the part of the Gramophone (Penguin, etc) writers.

Where I do take issue, however--respectfully and cheerfully, of course--is with your second assertion, that there are not many people for whom a love of classical music "has either been sparked, or enhanced, by these 'essential recording' lists," to which I would say that if you haven't met one of those people before, you've met one today! Without going into the boring and no doubt idiosyncratic biographical details, I can tell you it was *precisely* the existence of several persons' introductory "essential recording" lists (those persons being Allan Kozinn of the NY Times and Alex Ross of the New Yorker) that first sparked my passion for classical music. Not that my own individual case is representative of anything other than myself, but still..

Further along these lines, when you say that "the riches of classical music can only be uncovered by exploration, and finding out what you don't like, as well as being told what you should like" -- with which, again, I completely agree -- I would merely add that, to a music lover who happened not to have had parents who played much classical music in the house, or someone not blessed with a background in music, such a guide can be not only invaluable but also revelatory (as they were, and continue to be, for me). Speaking strictly for myself -- as someone who only began listening to classical music in earnest two or three years ago -- it was precisely the problem of thousands upon thousands of recordings that made the world of classical music seem so forbidding and intimidating to a neophyte. (I don't imagine I'm alone in such a sentiment.) While it's all well and good to say "dive right in" -- which of course is the only way to go about it -- I wouldn't discount the help that a ready-made list of 25, 50, or 100 time-honored recordings provides toward this end.

jfl said...

ah... as it so happens, this just made my best re-issue of 2005 list on ionarts. (http://ionarts.blogspot.com/2005/12/best-recordings-of-2005.html)
It really _is_ a wonderful achievement... not just because it is an *achievement* but because of the way he plays them. Still one of the finest accounts of Scarlatti on the harpsichord. I knew that the Overgrown Path had excellent taste somewhere beneath the rootwork and shrubberies. :)

jfl

Anonymous said...

By the way, those who enjoy Scarlatti may also enjoy P. Antonio Soler, who, it seems to me, deserves to be much better known. The recordings by Rafael Puyana and Marie-Luisa Hinrichs stand out.

Mess Noone said...

Thank you for the fine recommendation, and thanks once again for your informative and entertaining blog writing.

I just wanted to point out that MDC has a web site solely for boxed set bargains and the Scott Ross Scarlatti set is currently selling there for £59.99.

http://www.bigboxset.co.uk/product/294169/SCARLATTI_KEYBOARD_SONATAS_CPTE_SCOTT_ROSS

vineeth said...

Thank you for the lovely article

Just a quibble on when the recordings were completed, should not this "Ninety-eight sessions were required, and the last take was completed on 10th September 1885" be "Ninety-eight sessions were required, and the last take was completed on 10th September 1985".

Pliable said...

Vineeth, you are, of course, quite right - my typo.

At least I got the number of CDs in the box right ....