Saturday, September 02, 2006

If you only buy thirty-four CDs - 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

* This article was originally published on December 18, 2005, and is reblogged here as part of On An Overgrown Path's second anniversary celebration of Music beyond borders. Follow this link to read the comments posted to the original article.

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