Among his many eclectic interests, the Pittsburgh-born, French-trained harpsichordist Scott Ross counted volcanology, mineralogy, mycology, knitting and gardening – even cross-breading orchids at his home near Montpellier. “I’m not after the beautiful varieties that florists like,” he said in a 1986 interview, “What I’m after is strange ones, because I’m always interested in anything unusual.”
He could have been summing up his life, or indeed his playing. The American iconoclast may have been renowned for dressing like a lumberjack or biker in performance, but his legacy as a harpsichord pioneer rests firmly on the quality and intensity of his playing. Although his astounding virtuosity was apparent from an early age, Ross claimed that “the essential thing you need to play the harpsichord is not technique but taste”.
He drew on endless reserves of both for his landmark complete Scarlatti keyboard sonatas, the first in recorded history, originally released in a set of 34 CDs and now finally re-released. Ross recorded the first of Domenico Scarlatti’s 555 keyboard sonatas on 16 June, 1984 and went on to complete 98 sessions and eight thousand takes over 15 months, already aware he was suffering from a fatal illness.
Scarlatti became his life’s work. “When I stood in front of this mountain of music… I had the feeling I’d just plunged into a lake of icy water. But after that, I lived a sort of non-stop crescendo.” And as the New York Times observed, he had “all the necessary virtuoso flair and stylish sensitivity to bring this exciting music bounding to life”. Ross revealed in this rich oeuvre as many different compelling layers and mercurial surprises as there were to his own personality.
At the end of his “heroic” musical odyssey (as BBC Music Magazine termed it), which sonata was Ross’ favourite – the one he couldn’t live without out of all 555? “I’d choose number 208,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful. It’s also the slowest and the happiest one, the one with the most sunshine in it.”