D Scarlatti Harpsichord Sonatas, Volume 5
The late Scott Ross is still the only harpsichordist to have recorded all the Scarlatti sonatas (for Erato, 6/88), but Gilbert Rowland obviously intends to match him. By my reckoning, he’s now about a third of the way through. An enterprise on this scale seems more like a branch of librarianship than a manifestation of the world of commerce, and I imagine that for most collectors the prospect of acquiring an integrale of 35 or so Scarlatti CDs (Scott Ross’s runs to 34) will appear as daunting as it must to the player with the task of achieving it. Would one ever listen to them all?
The quality of Scarlatti’s music is justification enough, one could say, though the variety of the sonatas is surely best savoured if you don’t try to listen to too many at a sitting. Seven or eight are about right for me. After a break, each time I’ve returned to Gilbert Rowland I’ve been impressed by his high level of competence. Most important, the sound of his harpsichord – rich and tangy – wears well: I haven’t tired of it. Modelled after a Taskin of 1769, it’s not the kind of instrument that could complement the kaleidoscopic colouring of the sonatas with complicated orchestrations of its own, but the music really has no need of them. In that respect the taste of today is very different from what was fashionable 30 or 40 years ago. Thanks to a just balance (not too close) and a pleasing acoustic (the concert-hall of Epsom College), this is honest-to-goodness, pleasant listening. It is to Rowland’s credit that he brings out the essentially linear character of the sonatas and makes Scarlatti sing.
A bit more surface excitement would be welcome. One doesn’t want Scarlatti to sound brittle, but zest in the performance of him is essential; sometimes there’s not enough. As with the sound of the Spanish language, you should feel that there is dancing not far off. Rowland knows this perfectly well, and the first sonata on the second disc (the festive D major, Kk443) shows him at his invigorating best. So does the pair in B flat, Kk528 and 529, with their hair-raising skips and jumps. Once or twice elsewhere he sounds a mite stolid, less wide-awake; and when the sharpness of characterization fades one doubts whether the observance of all repeats is always such a good idea. Also, some of the sonatas (the G minor, Kk179, for example, and the wonderfully intense F minor, Kk462) take too long to establish themselves. In trying to create at the beginning of them the effect of an improvisation (appropriate enough), Rowland has misjudged the way it comes across – the listener perceives only waywardness.
But never mind these reservations. There’s enough here that impresses me as the real thing, and in building up a Scarlatti collection I’d be happy to include in it this reliable and perceptive player.'