Domenico Scarlatti Sonatas: in D minor (Kk213), in D minor (Kk141) (12:11), in E (Kk531) (17:57), in B minor (Kk27) (23:58), in B minor (Kk87) (28:33), in A minor (Kk175) (35:25), in E (Kk380) (42:01), in D (Kk492)
Cage Sonatas for prepared piano: nos. 14 (8:47), 13 (15:20), 11 (21:31), 1 (26:23), 12 (32:38), 16 (38:55) & 5 (46:42)
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 27 February, 2017
Listen to the BBC broadcast here
Written by Ben Hogwood
John Cage is a composer whose music transcends eras. That bold statement was made into reality by David Greilsammer’s imaginatively conceived recital of piano music at the Wigmore Hall, where innovations of the 18th century from Domenico Scarlatti rubbed shoulders with Cage’s music for ‘prepared’ piano.
The prepared piano is a heavily tampered instrument, beginning as a normal grand piano but ending up festooned with dampers, screws, nuts, bolts and even a rubber eraser. Hearing it in person is a real shock, because the resultant sounds are so far removed from a conventional piano tone that the listener has to instinctively check that it is a keyboard being used. The immediate reaction of raised eyebrows gives way to amazement that the instrument with which we are so familiar can make so many different timbres, clicks and beats.
Cage is often derided for these amendments, but hearing this concert from Greilsammer showed just how original his thinking was. The pure imagination of Scarlatti was also revealed, for his 550 sonatas were initially cast aside, with few published in his lifetime. Subsequently they have been shown to contain music of great freedom, expression and colour, so much so that the first sonata of the recital, no.213 in Ralph Kirkpatrick’s catalogue, (1:44 on the live broadcast link) – could almost have been by Cage. It helped that Greilsammer exaggerated its sparse contours and slow tempo, but it was a striking way to begin.
Cage’s evocations of the gamelan in his Sonatas made an immediate impact, helped by the fact Greilsammer was literally spinning between the normal piano for the Scarlatti and the prepared piano with little to no time difference. We passed through periods of energy but also reflection, always enjoying the shock of the new and some familiar contours of the old. With each switch it felt like we were being taken into another world.
The energetic Scarlatti pieces were stressed as such by Greilsammer – a punchy Kk141 especially – while on the Cage side the moods could be equally energetic. The contrasts were beautifully chosen, and so were the tonal centres – the rippling Scarlatti Sonata in E major, Kk531 (17:57), went straight into the treble-rich Sonata no.11 (21:31), and a more thoughtful Sonata in B minor Kk27 (23:58) segued into the more percussive Sonata no.12 (26:20) with barely a join in the notes. The same effect could be experienced at 32:38, where a pensive Scarlatti and a free, improvised Cage Sonata no. 12 were effectively joined together, the latter becoming gradually more aggressive as it moved forward.
The final three sonatas in the group were perhaps the most effective, a military-style march of Scarlatti in E major (42:01) cutting to the most evocative gamelan picture from Cage (46:42) and then to the final D major work of the Italian (48:18).
As a brilliantly conceived encore, Greilsammer offered a vision of his own nightmare, playing the right piece on the ‘wrong’ piano. This was the last Scarlatti sonata (53:50) – only on the prepared piano rather than the untampered one. It served to show just how surprisingly close the sound worlds of these two composers can be, and how music can effortlessly transcend gaps of three centuries.
Thought provoking and eyebrow-raising, this was a wholly stimulating concert and should be heard again!
David Greilsammer’s album of Scarlatti and Cage is available to stream on Spotify: