No sooner does Pieter-Jan Belder conclude his Scarlatti keyboard sonata survey for Brilliant Classics than the label brings it all out in a space-saving, budget-priced boxed set. I can’t think of any serious Scarlatti fan who would not want to explore this delightful, ceaselessly inventive repertoire in full.
The main question is how Belder measures up to his similarly packaged competitor Scott Ross. As of early 2008, Belder’s 36 discs cost markedly less than Ross’ 34. Whereas Ross utilizes a small and select number of instruments, Belder casts a wider net, so to speak, and also incorporates the fortepiano that Ross deliberately eschews. Sonically speaking, Ross’ recordings convey greater immediacy in their closely miked ambience. By contrast, Belder’s engineers favor a more resonant acoustic that allows the instruments more breathing room, although the fortepiano selections sound comparatively muddy and less well defined.
Because Scarlatti’s sonatas can withstand a wide variety of valid interpretations, the choice between Belder and Ross largely depends on your personal preferences. In general, Belder is a gentle, lyrical player, whereas Ross’ temperament appears more extroverted, even aggressive at times. Perhaps Ross takes greater care to differentiate shorter and longer notes in order for his steady tempos not to sound machine-like. Conversely, Belder’s more frequent rhythmic flexibility and agogic stresses never sound fussy nor dissipate the musical flow.
Regarding the figured bass sonatas, there’s much to be said for the breathtaking clarity and precision Ross’ chamber ensemble achieves vis-à-vis shorter phrase groupings, along with the added tone color of the oboe and bassoon in K. 81 and K. 89. On the other hand, we have Belder’s more lavish ornamentation, while violinist Rémy Baudet commands a more varied and expressive tone than Ross’ relatively wan counterpart Monica Huggett. Both sets offer excellent booklet notes, although the Warner Classics annotator discusses the sonatas in more individual detail.
So, which complete Scarlatti? For packaging and artistic consistency, Ross’ time-tested reference status is worth the extra cost, and you don’t have to deal with Belder’s less than alluring fortepiano. And since the Belder cycle remains available as 12 separate triple-CD volumes, collectors can sample it without taking a costlier leap of faith. Still, that leap is worth consideration, for Belder’s Scarlatti survey offers hours upon hours of listening pleasure, and unquestionably constitutes a major achievement.