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Review by Colin Clarke, Interview by Christopher Brodersen

SCARLATTI Keyboard Sonatas: in d, Kk 77; in d, Kk 9; in D, Kk 490; in b, Kk 87; in f, Kk 462; in E♭, Kk 193; in C, Kk 308; in f, Kk 69; in C, Kk 132; in a, Kk 451; in A, Kk 208; in A, Kk 24; in G, Kk 144; in g, Kk 8; in G, Kk 260; in B♭, Kk 544; in d, Kk 18; in d, Kk 32 Tatjana Vorobjova (hpd) MDG 921 2252-6 (SACD: 73:09)

A previous disc by Tatjana Vorobjova on Dabringhaus und Grimm, that of music by Johann Krieger (1652–1735), brought forth superlatives from me in what I see is a rather detailed review in Fanfare 45:2. While Domenico Scarlatti might be a better-known name than Krieger, Vorobjova has made an individual statement here: The disc is actually entitled Domenico Scarlatti…ma cantabile and aims to reveal the more lyrical side of the composer. In a brief introduction included in the booklet, Vorobjova writes that “The aim of this CD is to shine a spotlight on a new aspect of Scarlatti’s music for harpsichord: ‘Scarlatti—ma cantabile’ is an unusually vocal take on Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas in which his rhetorical language takes centre stage alongside his virtuosity.” She herself quotes Horowitz pointing out that out of Scarlatti’s total sonatas, more are slow than fast, and that “many are quite poetic, nostalgic and even dreamy, very much in the bel canto style.” Vorobjova refers to the sonatas as “micro dramas.”

The single biggest clue to Vorobjova’s approach above comes with the word “rhetorical.” The art of rhetoric was highly significant in the Baroque, and we hear it time and time again here in Vorobjova’s laying bare of gesture, here predominantly the expressive Affekt of, say, appoggiaturas or, as in the E♭-Major, Kk 193, echo effects (she plays on a double manual instrument by Titus Crijnen, 2004, after Ruckers with “grand ravalement,” a process of disassembly and reassembly that allows for new soundboard and case construction). The setup of stops, tuning, and intonation after Kirnberger (with “slight modification”) is by Rainer Sprung. All of this, alongside a phenomenal recording by Holger Schlegel, with the instrument perfectly placed in the soundspace with crystal clear sound, speaks of the level of care and attention that has been lavished on this project. The venue was the concert hall of Marienmünster Abbey, Germany, a former Benedictine monastery in North Rhine-Westphalia.

If C Major usually denotes ceremonial brightness, try the Sonata, Kk 308, a masterclass in delivering an ornamented, aria-like treble line. It is perhaps unsurprising to the informed reader to learn that here are surprises galore here; Scarlatti’s 550-plus sonatas exhibit huge variety within the use of a standard, bipartite form. Vorobjova offers an extension of this in that not only are there a surprising number of lyrical sonatas, but within those there is infinite variety, too. The exuberance one most readily associates with the name of Domenico Scarlatti is but one facet of the composer, Vorobjova appears to be saying. Listen, perhaps, to the aching melancholy of the F-Minor, Kk 69, where Vorobjova gives an object lesson in the use of appropriate, indeed vitally important, rubato in Baroque music. There is no sense of falseness here, and no sense of encroaching into the techniques of later music; it is perfectly apt to the music at hand, and intensely expressive in a near-vocal way, indeed it is as if the top line were sung. The Sonata in G Major, Kk 260, furnishes another example of how Vorobjova’s micro-rubato on affective gestures works so well.

Talking of “sung,” seven of the 18 sonatas here have the word cantabile in their directions to the player, either as a stand-alone instruction or in combination. Decorations become “vocally” expressive devices therefore, as in the C-Major, Kk 132, a sonata that includes some astonishing, insistent gestures.

It is interesting how keys generally thought of as bright and open, like A-Major, here can take on a distinctly lamenting quality. In Kk 208, an Adagio e cantabile of remarkable scope, the right-hand line has a positively investigative aspect, not to mention some remarkable moments of chromaticism. The Fantasy of the A-Major companion Sonata, Kk 24 (a Presto), acts as the perfect contrast: This sonata is one of the brightest in the present collection, playful in its repeated notes, its circling thirds and its gestural scales. Vorobjova’s way of presenting gesture in an unapologetic light allows Scarlatti’s modernity to speak clearly. The epitome of a dolorous Scarlatti “song” can be found in the remarkable G-Major, Kk 144, which appears here with a G-Minor companion, Kk 8, this latter a completely different world, decidedly minor-mode and with a dogged onward tread.

The program is carefully considered. Two pairs of sonatas in D Minor bookend the recital (Kk 77 and 9 to begin; Kk 18 and an unforgettably powerful Kk 32 to close, a sonata designated specifically as “Aria”). At one point two groups of three (three sonatas in A Major or Minor against three in G Major or Minor) create their own sub-segments within the recital.

Moving outside of the period performance category to make an emotional equivalence, the only recent performer that achieves anything like Vorobjova’s emotional attunement to Scarlatti’s world and who achieves equivalent levels of poignant expression is Lucas Debargue, one of the most interesting of currently active pianists, whose four-disc set of 52 sonatas on Sony Classical is so significant. He is a pianist who, it seems, is making inroads into period instrument performance, as at the time of writing he is due to play Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto with Insula Orchestra and Laurence Equilbey in Paris in late September, using Insula’s wonderful Pleyel piano.

Vorobjova’s program shows clearly that one finds infinite variety even when one takes a specific segment of Scarlatti’s output, and for that this release is incredibly valuable on a musical level. It is also enjoyable throughout, a real disc to relish. Colin Clarke


A Conversation with Harpsichordist Tatjana Vorobjova
By Christopher Brodersen

I caught up with Tatjana Vorobjova via Zoom at her home in Cologne, Germany. We spoke in German.

The topic today is, of course, your wonderful new CD titled Domenico Scarlatti…ma cantabile. We’ll get to that in a moment. But I also want to talk about your recent Krieger CD, which received glowing reviews from my colleagues at Fanfare. Interestingly, Colin Clarke called you a “Latvian” harpsichordist.

Well, I was born in Riga, the capital of Latvia, but as a matter of fact my native tongue is Russian.

I admit to not knowing a lot about Latvia, even though I lived for a year in nearby Lübeck. In the Middle Ages, Lübeck was the capital of the Hanseatic League, of which Riga was also a member. Are there any traces of German culture left in Riga?

Yes, quite a lot, in fact. Riga has a beautifully preserved old town. There’s also a lot of impressive Art Nouveau architecture.

So, I gather that you spoke Russian as a child in Riga. Were your parents Russian?

My father was Russian, and my mother was Jewish, but came from Belarus. Naturally we all spoke Russian at home; I was learning Latvian in school. I grew up speaking Russian, and at the time there were several Russian schools in Riga to choose from. You could have an education in Russian, as well as in Latvian.

In other words, this was the former Soviet Union.


What kind of opportunities for musical training existed in Riga?

In all the Soviet republics at the time, musical education was centrally controlled. Usually by the age of six or seven, children were introduced to music in the schools.

I assume you started with piano.

Yes. But I guess I was somewhat “out of the ordinary” from the beginning. My parents didn’t have any preconceived notion of what I should do in music. The government paid for everything concerning the education of children, of course. That meant that my parents hardly had any financial obligations, except for a small, “symbolic” fee for the music school. But the state also exercised strict control over the type of instruction that was given. The advantage was that children received a generous amount of musical instruction, many more hours of study than a child receives today in Germany, for example.


Yes. Today, in a German music school, you usually get 30 to 45 minutes of music instruction per child per week. Even then, there are additional costs that the parents must bear. In Latvia and Russia at the time, once the child had chosen an instrument, the state paid for two full hours of private instruction per week. In addition, there were usually several additional hours of theoretical instruction, like solfège, music theory, literature, and so on.

You see, my father just wanted his two daughters to learn piano. Both my parents were non-musical. They were employed in the technical sector; my father was an engineer. One of the jobs he had was the designing and building of carillons for various Russian churches. I think this must have given him a pretty good ear for music, even though he had no formal training. My father had received a piano as a present from someone, and this probably planted the idea in his head about us learning the piano. I started to take piano lessons with a private teacher, and after a little while she said that I should stop lessons and attend the state-run music school instead, because she felt I was “gifted.” My mother went with me to the music school. I had to take a test in order to get in, because there were always many more applicants than available space.

What age are we talking about?

I was seven years old. It was structured so that the first regular school year was also the first year in the music school. The test was hard—at one point, they asked me to sing passages played on the piano. I guess I didn’t do so well with that, and I wasn’t accepted.

You weren’t accepted?

Yeah, it was rather disappointing. But because my parents weren’t musicians, they didn’t see it as a huge setback. A year later—I was eight at this point—my teacher persuaded my mother to bring me to the music school to take the test a second time. The same story; I failed the test, and I wasn’t accepted! [laughs]

They rejected you a second time?

Yes. I’m guessing there was another factor. I was small for my age—I’m still small as an adult—and they must have taken one look at my small hands and said, “She’s never going to be a pianist.”

So, they rejected you because your hands were too small?

That’s my theory. Because I remember them examining my hands and remarking on how small they were. [laughs]


But that’s the Soviet system, right? There were always these stupid, arbitrary rules and regulations that one had to contend with.

I have to say that I owe my first teacher so much. She encouraged me to take the test a third time—at the other music school in Riga—and this time I got in!

I assume that at some point in your musical education, you encountered a harpsichord for the first time. Did that happen during your time in Latvia, or later?

It was in Latvia, in the mid-1990s. There was already a burgeoning interest in Baroque music and period instruments. But there weren’t any good, historical harpsichords in Latvia at the time. Mostly what you heard in concerts were German “factory” instruments. Instead, I listened to a lot of records, Gustav Leonhardt in particular.

Leonhardt is a great place to start.

I had the sneaking suspicion all during my studies that somehow the piano really wasn’t my instrument. At the time, I thought that maybe I wasn’t ideally suited to piano after all. I guess that’s why I was drawn to the harpsichord. I became increasingly interested in Baroque music, especially the sound world that it represented.

It turned out that I was much more of a “natural” on the harpsichord than on the modern piano. Because I enjoyed Baroque music so much, I decided to give it a go and switch to harpsichord. This happened right after I had finished my studies and had gotten my performer’s diploma in piano, with a minor in musicology. I applied for and received a harpsichord scholarship through the Nordic-Baltic Scholarship Organization, an exchange program between Latvia and, in this case, Norway. It enabled me to go to Oslo to study with the noted harpsichordist Ketil Haugsand.

The harpsichord “scene” in Oslo was invigorating; I was able to give a harpsichord recital in the Grand Hall of the Oslo Music Academy. I wanted to study further, and because Ketil had moved to Germany, I decided to apply to the Musikhochschule in Cologne, where he was the harpsichord professor.

So, the chance to continue studying with Ketil was the reason you moved to Germany.


Did you become a German citizen?

Well, I could have done that, but in all honesty, I didn’t need to, because my Latvian passport allowed me to live anywhere in the European Union.

Of course.

I got my EU passport in 2004, and I decided to leave it at that, because it gives me the freedom to live and travel wherever I like within Europe.

Getting back to the harpsichord, when did you first perform in public as a harpsichordist? Was that in Oslo, or before?

Actually, that happened in Riga. I was so motivated to play the harpsichord that I single-handedly organized a concert in one of the Riga music schools. I had programs printed, invited people, and so on. I played an hour-long program of works by Byrd, Couperin, Scarlatti, and Bach, on an absolutely awful Sperrhake spinet that belonged to the music school. The actual instrument didn’t matter as much to me as the idea of playing it. When I think about it now, I can hardly believe I did this. But I did. Of course, later on in Oslo, I saw and played several excellent historical instruments. It was a completely different world.

Prior to the concert in Riga, had you studied harpsichord with anyone?

No. At that time, there weren’t any harpsichord teachers in Riga to speak of.

I assume that once you finished your harpsichord studies in Germany, that’s when you began to make recordings.

Yes, somewhat later. The first CDs I recorded were early harpsichord concertos of Mozart, which are arrangements of sonatas by Johann Christian Bach, and a solo disc titled Cembalo Cantabile, both on the Amati label. The Cembalo Cantabile CD was recorded in 2013.

The next CD of yours to appear was the Krieger disc, which is dated 2020. I confess that I had to look him up in New Grove. It seems this is not the more familiar Johann Philipp Krieger, who wrote a lot of Harmonie music, but his younger brother, Johann. The article in New Grove called Krieger “one of the most important German composers of keyboard music in the generation before Sebastian Bach.”

Yes, I’ve read that, too. My first reaction was to call it a bit of an overstatement, but I later came to realize that there’s some truth to it. Certainly, Krieger’s music isn’t heard all that much nowadays; it’s somewhat outside of the mainstream. His style is rather quirky and “closed off,” although he was clearly influenced by other composers—above all, Froberger.

It’s a mystery to me why Krieger’s music isn’t more widely known. Printed editions of Krieger’s music have been available for a long time, and with the new Bärenreiter edition, there’s even more reason to play it. But so far there haven’t been any complete recordings.

I agree that his style is unique. What struck me in that regard is Krieger’s use of chromaticism. Every so often you get these strange little chromatic figures that appear out of nowhere. In the later Baroque, of course, such chromaticism was used to express intense emotion, but here it seems to mean something different.

It was exactly this chromaticism that I found intriguing. On paper, these pieces appear rather plain and unassuming. But when you’re playing along and one of these chromatic passages happens—for example in the Allemande from the Partita in B Major—it’s an event. It’s as if a tiny window has been opened. I feel that Krieger has discovered new possibilities for the harpsichord. Naturally, in order to make these passages work, one has to adopt a certain freedom.

My colleagues picked up on that; Ken Meltzer noted the “winning ebb and flow” of your phrasing.

I’m grateful for that!

With hardly a break, you followed the Krieger with your Scarlatti disc.

The Krieger was recorded in August of 2020, the first year of COVID. Almost exactly a year later, I recorded the Scarlatti.

What sort of preparation was needed for the two CDs? Did you play any of this music in public before recording it?

Well, about three or four years ago I started researching material for a recording. What sort of music would be suitable? What needs to be recorded? Quite accidentally, I came across the music of Krieger. I discovered that there were hardly any recordings. But I had a lot going on at the time, so I put the project on the back burner. I played exactly one of the Partitas in public; the other five I worked on intermittently.

As the virus started to hit in March of 2020, I thought I should take advantage of the lull and “make it happen.” It took me about three or four months to prepare all of the Partitas. Then in June 2021, I played all six in a public concert in Cologne. Luckily it was one of the few such events that was allowed to take place during the epidemic.

It’s rather fortunate that you were able to record, because many record labels were shutting down during this time.


As with so many other keyboardists, I imagine that Scarlatti was always in your repertoire.

Yes, but for this CD I learned several sonatas that I hadn’t played before, because I wanted to convey something specific, namely this idea of “ma cantabile.”

One might infer from this that you think “cantabile” is lacking in other Scarlatti recordings.

Well, naturally not all of them! [laughs] But if you look at Scarlatti recordings as a whole, most of them are coming from the other direction, that of virtuosity and velocity.

It’s as if harpsichordists are trying to prove that they can play faster than anybody else.


I notice that you chose to record the sonatas singly, rather than in Kirkpatrick pairs. You know, slow-fast, loud-soft, and so on.

Naturally I could have recorded them in pairs. But I had a different “dramaturgy” in mind. You’ll notice that playing the sonatas in Kirkpatrick pairs has fallen out of favor with many harpsichordists. Anyway, it was just easier for me to record them singly, because the “cantabile” idea was foremost in my mind.

Your harpsichord is by Titus Crijnen, whose instruments are pretty much unknown in the U.S. The liner notes call it a “double manual harpsichord after Ruckers ravalement.” For all intents and purposes, then, it’s a French double.

Yes, you could say that.

Judging from the sound, it’s the ideal instrument to convey the idea of “cantabile.”

I think so!

Any plans for future recordings? More Scarlatti or Krieger?

Although I don’t have any concrete plans at the moment, future recordings will be of other composers. I’m kicking around some ideas. I could possibly do some French music. I would also like to record a CD of Bach. I’m looking at the Partitas, mixed in with other works.

Will you be continuing with Dabringhaus und Grimm?

Oh, yes. I’ve recorded two CDs with them, and I’m very happy with the results. I was especially pleased with the engineering on these discs.

Yes, the recording quality is excellent. Recording harpsichord is always a challenge.

Yes, I know!

So many harpsichord CDs fail to capture the feeling of an instrument in a real space.

Agreed. I really enjoyed working with Holger Schlegel, who was the Tonmeister for my CDs. He has such good musical instincts and taste, and this made all the difference.

The Scarlatti liner notes say that you received funding from Neu Start Kultur.

It’s a government program, a stipend that was set up in 2020 to provide help to out-of-work musicians. Naturally there were many cancellations due to the virus—concerts, recordings, and so on. The stipend must be tied to a specific project. You send them the proposal, and they decide if it’s worthy. My project was the Scarlatti CD.

Did you also receive funding for the Krieger CD?

I did, from North Rhine-Westphalia. But Neu Start Kultur is on the federal level. For all my CDs I’ve had to provide part of the financing. Without government funding none of it would have been possible.

That brings up an important point. Nowadays artists are required to cover a major portion of the production costs of a CD, whereas in the Good Old Days, the major labels took care of everything.

Germany was hit particularly hard by COVID, yet as strange as it sounds, Neu Start Kultur is something positive to come out a bad situation. In my case, I was able to produce two CDs that otherwise might not have seen the light of day if COVID hadn’t happened.

As the saying goes, “one door closes and another one opens.”



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