Review: Scarlatti and Cage in the Great Hall
Domenico Scarlatti (born Naples in 1685, and so an exact contemporary of J S Bach) wrote over 500 sonatas for harpsichord, nearly all of them short and in just one movement of simple AABB form – two halves, each of them repeated. John Cage (1912-1992) also wrote short keyboard sonatas, also nearly all of AABB form, but only sixteen of them. They were all intended to be played on a ‘prepared’ piano, which entails placing screws and bolts between the strings, together with rubber rings, plastic strips and an eraser, all of whose positions are precisely specified. This produces some strange sonorities – in some cases a thud rather than a musical sound.
In the Great Hall on Thursday 26 October, the American pianist David Greilsammer performed an interesting programme in which eight Scarlatti sonatas were alternated with seven sonatas by Cage. The University’s two concert grand pianos were placed end to end on the Great Hall stage, with Greilsammer sitting on the piano stool between the two keyboards, so that when he had finished playing one sonata, he could swivel quickly round to the opposite keyboard and begin on the next sonata, by the other composer. The programme of fifteen sonatas was played without a break or an interval.
Scarlatti spent much of his active life in Portugal, where he was employed as the harpsichord teacher of Princess Maria Barbara. In spite of, or more likely because of, his musical isolation, his sonatas are fascinatingly quirky and distinctive. They would of course have been played on the harpsichord – the piano had not yet been invented. When Greilsammer entered and positioned himself on the stool, the lights were dimmed to the point where it was impossible to read the programme, which rather defeated the object of having it.
He opened the first Scarlatti sonata playing ppp – so quietly that some of the notes barely spoke at all. Then he suddenly switched to playing extremely loudly. What was the point of these extreme contrasts? It was unclear, but they were very unsettling. Of course, if the Scarlatti sonatas had been played on a harpsichord, in which the strings are plucked rather than struck by hammers as in a piano, such contrasts would not have been possible. This would have been more appropriate. It would also have been impossible to open so very quietly.
The Cage sonatas were a complete contrast. Although completely written out, they sounded quite free, and of course their genre is totally different from the sonatas by Scarlatti. Greilsammer seemed more at home in this modern American music than in the Scarlatti sonatas, where his idiosyncratic performance seemed to this critic too self-indulgent.
Having said this, it was an interesting recital, no doubt introducing many members of the audience to Cage’s music.
Contributed by Martin Widden.