Scott Ross in an exclusive master class, recorded in Rome, a few times before his death in 1989.
Olivier Bernager, about this master class with Scott Ross:
This music lesson has a painful history. I have been reproached by members of the 'Baroque' milieu for having exploited Scott Ross's illness in order to worm a film out of him. He who was so caustic about images, they say, so scrupulous, so suspicious of the media, would never have agreed... But they fail to account of the artistic rapport between us which dated from the time of his complete Rameau recording (1975) for the inventive label Stil.
To persuade a tired and anxious man, caught up in the tragic self-questioning of all who knew they were suffering from Aids, an illness still regarded as shameful in 1989, required the insistence of friends he trusted: the harpsichord builder David Ley, a close friend who regulated his instruments during filming, and Monique Devaux, director of the Auditorium du Louvre, without whom this film might never have seen the light of day, who cosseted him and accompanied him to the plane that took him to Rome. I will never forget them.
Unlike many soloists when their career is in full swing, Scott Ross devoted time to teaching in his class at Laval University in Quebec (1973-86). One senses in these lessons that he was used to spotting the missing detail and to explaining it in simple terms, without forgetting to place it in perspective. But he also liked to say things that would surprise, even shock his interlocutor. Scott Ross was a mixture of profundity and provocation. His cut-and-dried judgements on Gould or Landowska are profound. They spring from a desire to make us think, not from a mere taste for witticism. 'Landowska didn't play the harpsichord!': what if he were right? 'Gould didn't understand Bach', because he didn't know the harpsichord: that seems like bad faith! But if you think about it again... Those who were close to Scott Ross know that he was very well acquainted with the great keyboard players, and not only the harpsichordists! Schnabel, whom he greatly admired in Schubert, Horowitz whom he found fascinating... Landowska, of whom he did a priceless imitation! If he had lived, he would have played Schubert on a fortepiano, as he told me during the pauses between two takes.
It was a time when all kinds of excess seemed to come together. The world of Baroque music already had its institutions, in Bruges, Ghent, Paris, Quebec, Cologne, London, Basel. Editors were discovering new scores, performers unconventional ways of playing them. Instrument maked were beginning to copy harpsichords, clavichords and soon fortepianos, luthiers were studying the contours of the viol family, singers were scorning vibrato – and music-lovers, reported by a few journalists and writers, fiercely discussed the merits of this challenge to the norms, a salutary exercise at a time when, at the other extreme, in the camp of modern music which described itself as 'contemporary', people were fighting over whether it was better to wear steel braces (serialism) or a crocodile belt (tonality). A quarrel just as heated as the question of turning to a'=415!
In the context of this film, the figure of Scott Ross seems remarkably well-behaved. He is ill and he wants at all costs to leave behind a carefully constructed, balanced image. Everyone remembers how he created a splash, an angel then a demon, with his taste in clothes, by turns hippy and black leather, and his apparently uncompromising remarks. This film shows a musician in black sweater and bonnet. In this austere garb, he reminds us of his high intellectual standards and displays the poetry of his playing, disclosing some of its secrets in simple words; explaining Bach's Fugue in D minor BWV 903, he tells his pupil Nicolau de Figueiredo: 'You hear the din I make... by holding all the notes?' It is amazing to realise just how free he was with respect to the demands of 'authentic' interpretation in the 1980, which drowned out the music with their intransigence. He relativises everything, and twenty years later we realise that he was right, that he foretold the flexibility of approach, of playing and phrasing so successfully embodied today by artists like Andreas Staier and René Jacobs. A blend of rigour of conception and freedom of interpretation: that was Scott Ross. And that is how he appears in Jacques Renard's elegant images, in the city of Rome where he loved to breathe the air and stroke the cats.
Translation: Charles Johnston
About Scott Ross
Scott Ross (born Pittsburgh, USA, 1 March 1951; died Assas, France, 13 June 1989), began learning the piano at the age of six. Some years after his father died, his mother decided to go and live in France, where the family settled in 1964. Scott studied the organ with Michel Saorgin and the harpsichord with Huguette Grémy-Chauliac at the Nice Conservatoire, gaining Premiers Prix in these disciplines in 1968 before going on to advanced study with Robert Veyron-Lacroix and Laurence Boulay at the Paris Conservatoire between 1969 and 1971; at this time he discovered the restoration workshop of the Musée du Conservatoire, which gave him the opportunity to cultivate his mastery of the harpsichord and to combine an already irreproachable technique with in-depth musicological and organological knowledge. The year 1971 marked a turning point in his career: he won the prestigious Bruges Competition, studied with Kenneth Gilbert at the Royal Conservatory in Antwerp, and made his first recording, Monsieur Bach (Stil). From 1973 to 1986 he held a teaching post at the School of Music of Laval University in Quebec. He returned to France periodically from 1983, settling permanently in Assas (Hérault) in 1985. Scott Ross continued recording and giving concerts until his premature death from Aids four years later. Among his many recordings are complete sets of the harpsichord music of Rameau (1975) and François Couperin (1978) and his monumental set of the 555 sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti, taped for the Erato label between June 1984 and September 1985.
Private music lessons: twelve hugely influential programmes broadcast by French television between 1987 and 1991. The guiding principle for Olivier Bernager and François Manceaux was to capture the art of the leading performers of our time, live in concert but also and above all in a teaching environment.
Private music lessons
Treasures of the Masterclass Media Foundation
London Symphony Orchestra, Charles Groves (conductor), Bruno Rigutto, Vasso Devetzi (piano)