Scarlatti’s Mystery Sonata K.87


Like (almost) everywhere in this personal website, my posts on books and music are not meant to persuade anyone reading it to join my opinion or views. Neither will my choice of post topics attempt to provide a comprehensive representation of my tastes in books and music. Not only would that be impossible but who would be interested in that? I myself am not. Google’s (Youtube) algorithms will know best I suppose, but only after I have gone, because as long as I live I will keep adding data.

I must acknowledge that, in spite of all the darker sides of the internet, Youtube has made it so incredibly easy to compare and enjoy different interpretations of musical pieces. A great joy to do that at ease at home. In the past, one had just about time to listen to some parts of two or three different versions in a CD shop. Then we took one CD home and that was then the version with which we became most acquainted; and rarely looked further. Without the internet I could obviously never have written this post.

In my music posts I will not write about how much I enjoy the works of Monteverdi, Purcell, Dowland, J.S. Bach, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Bruckner, Brahms, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Mahler, Prokofiev, Sibelius, Ravel, Debussy, Stravinsky, Vaughn Williams, Erik Satie, Steve Reich, John Cage, Arvo Pärt, Phillip Glass and so many more. Other people can do that much better and it is anyway better to listen to music than to write about it. I often combine it with writing, whatever the topic.

True, that list of composers already gave away my general preference: all what is broadly called ‘classical’ music. This has nothing to do with my age, I already loved classical music in my early youth. I also like some popular music but it has never affected me as deeply. Music associated with the Wiener ballrooms, such as Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar, as well as most kinds of Jazz, can very effectively be used to chase me far away.

So what will guide my choice of blog topics in books and music? There are no fixed rules but it will often depend on having discovered or experienced something that is perhaps not generally known. Or something that I found to be special that I like to study a bit deeper and share. Even if just to document it for myself, because writing is often a good way to think about and ‘research’ something.

This first post about music may illustrate this.

The first 5 bars of K.87 – the whole score is just 2 pages with 70 bars; each half is repeated once.

Domenico Scarlatti (1685 – 1757) is well-known for his sparkling keyboard Sonatas. I regularly like to listen to them, while comparing interpretations of different pianists. But the reason to write about this subject is because among the many Scarlatti sonatas there is one (Sonata in B minor, K.87 / L.33) that to my ears is different from all the others and in some mysterious way most completely resonates with my being.

I must relativate “all the others” because I have by far not yet heard all the 555(!) sonatas that Scarlatti has composed1 .

Other composers have certainly also created works that resonate with me as much, if not more. But I often wondered why this particular sonata for me transcends all the other most commonly played Scarlatti sonatas, while I have not yet heard or read anybody else noting anything special about K.87. It is not among the 15 most frequently played ones such as K.1, 8, 9, 11, 17, 27, 30, 39, 141, 146, 159, 380, 450, 466 and 531.

There is a range of famous and less well-known pianists with beautiful Scarlatti interpretations and I appreciate many of them. But, those who play Sonata No. K.87, usually play it too fast, and then it looses its special, favoured position for me. It is not a virtuoso piece- technically not difficult to play. Scarlatti did not indicate a tempo for this sonata – I think because its character self-evidently asks for it to be played slow, at most Adagio.

Mikhail Pletnev’s interpretation of K.87 thus far hits the bulls eye for me.

It takes Pletnev more than 7 minutes to play this while most others do it in around four minutes – even Horowitz. This translates into about 60 bpm (beats per minute). The other extreme can be found on a Wikipedia page, on a digital harpsichord, rushing it off in just over 2 minutes (200 bpm) – a Horror! 

I certainly do not contend that Scarlatti’s sonatas in general are played too fast. On the contrary, many of them cry out for speed and if a pianist is able to go fast with perfect accuracy it does not feel rushed (hear for instance Michelangeli, or even faster by the wonderful, rising piano star Yuja Wang:

Some pieces can be played in a range of tempi without detracting much from their pleasure. And pure musical pleasure is what characterizes most of Scarlatti’s sonatas. But K.87 is exceptionally serious, mournful even, some say. There is not a single tremolo or trill, which abound in almost all other sonatas. I find K.87 a ‘jewel’ – even though that is a bit strange to say because it is perhaps the least ‘sparkling’ among all the glittering Scarlatti sonatas.

But to my feeling it is not sad. More contemplative, like a ‘philosophy of life’. In spite of the deceptively simple score it has many layers. But to unveil and express those layers it must be played in a slow tempo.

Ivo Pogorelich (DG435 855-2)2  comes quite near with taking 6.15 minutes. As does one Spencer Myer (6.01). But neither is as good as Pletnev (7.05) in bringing out all layers of the piece.

While Scarlatti of course composed his sonatas for the in his time existing varieties of the harpsichord, many of them (imho) sound better on a modern grand piano. I tend to agree with Maarten ‘t Hart’s3  verdict of the harpsichord: “as if you drop a box of thumbtacks on the floor”.  Yet, while writing about this I just discovered that the harpsichordist Scott Ross was the first to record all 555 sonatas. The handful of harpsichord renditions from him that are available on internet are certainly enjoyable.

Pletnev plays other sonatas also in his own particular and exciting way – and certainly not slower than others – but he does not in all sonatas surpass the renditions of, for instance, András Schiff, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Horowitz, Clara Haskill, Martha Argerich, Glenn Gould and Ivo Pogorelic. Also found some pianists whom I had never heard of who play Scarlatti beautifully such as Dubravka Tomsic (who uses ‘Helena Schubert’ as her artist name) and Yevgeni Sudbin.

These interpreters cannot be linearly ranked by even one person’s taste I think.4  While some play some sonatas ‘best’, others can excel in others. Sometimes this judgement can vary according to one’s mood, time of the day or season. But so far Pletnev and Pogorelic give me the ‘best’ interpretation of K.87 (at all times).

There are many quite useless discussions about personal taste and whether one or another version would be more “as intended by the composer”. Nobody can verify this, but it may well be that Pletnev’s version of K.87 is not as it originally sounded. So what? The fact remains that this version happens to totally resonate with me. And I only have me to enjoy music with.

The latter is not said jokingly – I do believe that ‘resonance’ is the correct term to use because it implies a precise matching between a sender and a receiver. Each of our minds+bodies forms a unique instrument with its own spectrum of eigen-frequencies that will resonate more with certain music and less, or not at all, with other pieces. And that will be as far as I can come to explain why this piece has that effect on me.

Does liking ‘sad’ music mean that I am a sad person? Once I ‘confessed’ to a school mate that I liked classical music better than pop and he retorted: “Oh why, that’s so sad!” That was in the early heydays of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and made me wonder: how come that sad music makes me more happy, while some kinds of happy music make me sad?

I was lucky to have three boyfriends at college who also ‘openly’ liked classical music. Two of them played the violin and the third one, my best friend during secondary school, liked to play the guitar. Although the latter especially loved technical things like repairing cars. Once he bought two old, broken Renault 4’s cheaply and turned them into one working car that, after using it during our summer holiday, could be sold for a good price. However, what is relevant here is that at his parents home they had a special music room, completely in Louis XIV style, with a good sound installation, many records and a pianola with a beautiful sound  and many pianola rolls. There, after coming back from the workshop, we drank whisky on Saturday nights and, for instance, listened how Busoni may have played Liszt’s piano version of Paganini’s La Campanella5 – his ghost moving the pianola keys. But I digress.

The contrast between K.87 and many other Scarlatti sonatas is to some extent comparable to that between the slow middle movements and the faster opening and closing parts of Mozart’s piano concertos. The latter are often allegro to presto, jubilant, virtuoso and extravert, in stark contrast to the andante or adagio, melancholic, more introvert and more emotionally moving, middle part.

A striking example of how much the impact of certain music can be augmented by playing it much slower than usual was Reinbert de Leeuw’s version of Erik Satie’s ‘Gnossienes and Gymnopédies’. But that feat was applauded by many music lovers. I have thus far heard nobody else about Scarlatti’s K.87.

Joseph Conrad

Joseph Conrad is my dearest novel writer. “Nigger of the Narcissus” was the first book I read of him when I was about 18 years old and it hooked me. Over the years I read all his other books, many twice and some thrice. And, once my Spirit1  is floating again – exactly in the waters where many of his stories were set to play – I have promised myself to read them again; slowly sipping them like a good wine.

The first reading was often quick because the stories were too captivating to allow time for looking up the meaning of the many, new to me, English words. Especially adverbs and verbs – an incredible vocabulary for someone who was born in Poland, after that first learned French and only later in life English. There was more time for keeping the dictionary at hand when reading a book the second time, when already knowing how the plot would evolve.

Even though his novels can be as thrilling as a detective, the storyline can be held up by page-long descriptions of the surrounding scenery. These are often about a landscape and nature – including the weather, as is to be expected from a sailor- but they can also be descriptions of a human or other phenomena. Slowly cherishing those sections was the best part of second readings. Here an arbitrary example, taken from “Nostromo”, describing a day, from dawn to night, as could be seen from the deck of a ship for anchor in a bay somewhere in South America:

. Joseph Conrad in 1904

“On crossing the imaginary line drawn from Punta Mala to Azuera the ships from Europe bound to Sulaco lose at once the strong breezes of the ocean. They become the prey of capricious airs that play with them for thirty hours at a stretch sometimes. Before them the head of the calm gulf is filled on most days of the year by a great body of motionless and opaque clouds. On the rare clear mornings another shadow is cast upon the sweep of the gulf.


The dawn breaks high behind the towering and serrated wall of the Cordillera, a clear-cut vision of dark peaks rearing their steep slopes on a lofty pedestal of forest rising from the very edge of the shore. Amongst them the white head of Higuerota rises majestically upon the blue. Bare clusters of enormous rocks sprinkle with tiny black dots the smooth dome of snow.

Then, as the midday sun withdraws from the gulf the shadow of the mountains, the clouds begin to roll out of the lower valleys. They swathe in sombre tatters the naked crags of precipices above the wooded slopes, hide the peaks, smoke in stormy trails across the snows of Higuerota. The Cordillera is gone from you as if it had dissolved itself into great piles of grey and black vapours that travel out slowly to seaward and vanish into thin air all along the front before the blazing heat of the day. The wasting edge of the cloud-bank always strives for, but seldom wins, the middle of the gulf. The sun—as the sailors say—is eating it up. Unless perchance a sombre thunder-head breaks away from the main body to career all over the gulf till it escapes into the offing beyond Azuera, where it bursts suddenly into flame and crashes like a sinster pirate-ship of the air, hove-to above the horizon, engaging the sea.

At night the body of clouds advancing higher up the sky smothers the whole quiet gulf below with an impenetrable darkness, in which the sound of the falling showers can be heard beginning and ceasing abruptly—now here, now there. Indeed, these cloudy nights are proverbial with the seamen along the whole west coast of a great continent. Sky, land, and sea disappear together out of the world when the Placido—as the saying is—goes to sleep under its black poncho. The few stars left below the seaward frown of the vault shine feebly as into the mouth of a black cavern. In its vastness your ship floats unseen under your feet, her sails flutter invisible above your head. The eye of God Himself—they add with grim profanity—could not find out what work a man’s hand is doing in there; and you would be free to call the devil to your aid with impunity if even his malice were not defeated by such a blind darkness.”

I do not know how this works on other readers but I find it magically evocative. As if we stand next to him looking pensively from the deck of the ship. We compose the picture (or rather, a time-lapse video) in our own mind by reading his. Old-fashioned for some perhaps, timeless to me.

The relation with my life’s main themes will be obvious. But there is so much more to find in Conrad – a subject for future posts.