Musical Authors I have ignored Dominico Scarlatti’s one movement keyboard sonatas for years, thinking of them (if I did at all) as sub-Bach. A passage from Basil Bunting’s long poem Briggflats that I came across recently has made me go and seek them out. Here’s the passage:

As the player’s breath warms the fipple the tone clears.
It is time to consider how Domenico Scarlatti
condensed so much music into so few bars
with never a crabbed turn or congested cadence,
never a boast or a see-here; and stars and lakes
echo him and the copse drums out his measure,
snow peaks are lifted up in moonlight and twilight
and the sun rises on an acknowledged land.

Bunting (1900-1985) was always interested in music and his poetry was written to be read aloud to bring out its sonic qualities. Briggflatts is a long autobiographical poem written in 1965 (“the finest long poem to be written in England since T S Eliot’s Four Quartets”, according to Cyril Connolly). In live performances, Bunting used to read its five parts interspersed with recordings of Scarlatti, and modeled the structure of his poems on the music. He chose the classic 1956 George Malcolm harpsichord selection (also used in Neil Astley’s Bloodaxe recording of the poem, first issued in 1980), but I’m afraid I prefer the piano, and Mikhail Pletnev’s performances in particular, despite some criticism that he brings too much of a romantic sensibility to the pieces. However, to me they balance the two worlds perfectly – in the D major sonata (KK 443, L418) for instance, the brittle, ornamented opening immediately brings to mind the harpsichord, but as soon as the main theme comes in (at 12 seconds), Pletnev eases into the music with finely judged pianistic legato and expansiveness.

Scarlatti suffers from the fact that there are over 550 sonatas and it’s hard to know where to start – the Malcolm and Pletnev recordings only share four common selections.