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Satirino records · Scarlatti - Sonatas

Scarlatti - 27 Sonatas

Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord

Recorded at
Auditorium Antonin Artaud de la Bibliothèque-Médiathèque d'Ivry-sur-Seine, Val de Marne, France, 20-22/12/2001
Sound engineers
Jiri Heger & Jean Chatauret
Jiri Heger, Musica Numeris France
Etienne Collard & Jiri Heger, Musica Numeris France
le monde est petit
Owen Franken (Corbis Sygma)

Anthony Sidey harpsichord copy of a Ruckers-Hemsch 1636-1763 made in Paris in 1988 by Anthony Sidey and Frédéric Bal. Tuning 415 Hz Valotti Anthony Sidey.

This recording was made with the support of The Orion Foundation

Press Reviews

‘Kenneth Weiss… offers a mixed programme, superbly played at well-judged tempi and recorded with clarity.’
John Duarte, Gramophone
'It is pure gold, matte in finish, discreet in its shine. Eash sonata is an example of impeccable proportion and subtle intelligence, where clarity is no obstacle to sensitivity.'
Laura Rónai, Fanfare Magazine

Liner Note 

Acciaccaturas were a speciality of Scarlatti but not in the usual sense of the word meaning ‘crushing note’ and most often referring to a quick ‘crushing’ grace-note preceding another note, as opposed to an appoggiatura which is slow and lingering. Scarlatti’s used them in the bass where he added written-out dissonances. Gasparini called them ‘simultaneous mordents’. By plucking more notes at once, and then releasing the dissonant notes, tremendous punch is obtained, filling the belly of the harpsichord with a bulge of sound. Harpsichordists these days often don’t let go of the acciaccature, leaving the delightful dissonances to linger longer. (K.175 and K.490)

Burney (Charles Burney 1726–1814) was one of the first to recognise Scarlatti’s genius. His General History of Music, surprisingly, does not give Domenico the brief ‘life and works’ that he bestows on most composers of his time, not because he was of insufficient importance, rather the reverse. Scarlatti’s ‘lessons’ seem to be a benchmark by which Burney measured other players. The ability to ‘play the most difficult of Scarlatti’s lessons neatly’ he saw as a necessary attribute for any harpsichordist worth his salt.

Clavicembalo, cembalo, clavicordio de plumas, clavicordio de piano — all titles of instruments associated with Scarlatti, the latter two with Bartolomeo Cristofori, so-called inventor of the piano. The question remains: what kind of instrument did Scarlatti write for? Charles Burney addressed the question in his The present state of music in France and Italy of 1771:

‘A harpsichord given to him by the late Queen of Spain … has more tone than any of the others. Of these Spanish harpsichords the natural keys are black, and the flats and sharps are covered with mother-of-pearl; they are of the Italian model, all the wood is cedar, except the bellies, and they are put into a second case.’

There were experiments around: on one occasion Maria Barbara had expressed a desire for a harpsichord with more possibilities of colour-change. Two solutions were experimented with: first a piano-type instrument which set the strings sounding with hammers, and second a harpsichord prefiguring those of the twentieth century by having different registers controlled with pedals.

Domenico was born in Naples in 1685 and died in Madrid in 1757. He was the sixth of Alessandro Scarlatti’s ten children. No doubt his illustrious father, most famed for his operas, was his first teacher. Subsequently we know little about his musical educators though there is some evidence that Bernardo Pasquini and Francesco Gasparini were among them. Musically he was very much an Italian, but it is the pieces from the latter part of his life, which he spent in Spain, for which he is remembered.

Essercizi per gravicembalo was the title of the first collected edition of 30 sonatas, published in London in 1736 and pirated by Scarlatti’s friend Thomas Roseingrave who republished them in 1739 with the French title Suites de Pièces pour le clavecin and a recommendation in English: ‘I think the following pieces for the Delicacy of Stile, and Masterly Composition, worthy the Attention of the Curious’. ‘Exercises’ is of course a misnomer, for the sonatas are much more than that, and several of the most celebrated were contained within this collection (K.8 and K.27 are included on the present recording).

Fontes (Marquis de Fontes) was the Portuguese ambassador to the Vatican. Scarlatti first became acquainted with him in June 1714 when he composed an Applauso genetliaco (a cantata) in celebration of the birth of a Portuguese infanta. Domenico’s association with de Fontes was crucial and was to lead, five years later, to the composer’s move to Lisbon to work in the patriarchal chapel.

Giuseppe was Domenico’s first given name, but he seems never to have used it possibly because he had a nephew of that name. What kind of a man was he? We have few records and must rely on a few unreliable anecdotes. He was supposed to have had an unbridled passion for gambling. He is also supposed to have become rather portly in later life, and allegedly became so fat that he was no longer able to cross hands at the keyboard.

Handel and Scarlatti not only share the year of their birth but have long been associated anecdotally. According to Handel’s early biographer Mainwaring, whose Memoirs of the life of George Frederic Handel were published in 1760, Scarlatti is supposed to participated in a contest with Handel to ascertain who was the most virtuosic keyboard player. This allegedly took place in Rome and the result was that Scarlatti was the victor as far as the harpsichord was concerned, while Handel triumphed on the organ.

Italy and its music nurtured Scarlatti in his early years. Not only was it Domenico’s birthplace but also the source of his livelihood during the earlier part of his life, before his move to the Iberian peninsula. He travelled extensively in Italy, spending four months in Florence in 1702 where Alessandro had hoped to find improved employment in the court of Ferdinando de’ Medici. Here Domenico may have become acquainted with the work of the Florentine instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori, inventor of the pianoforte. Ferdinando de’ Medici was the proud possessor of what is thought to be the first piano, known as a gravicembalo col piano e forte. Rome was Scarlatti’s home from 1709 when he entered the service of the exiled Polish Queen, Maria Casimira. In 1713 he became maestro di cappella of the Basilica Giulia and in Rome seems to have split his life between church and court. Later in his life he several times returned there, meeting Quantz and possibly the virtuoso singer Farinelli.

Kirkpatrick was the first to make a serious attempt at ordering Domenico’s sonatas in the 1950s. He favoured the idea of pairs of sonatas in the same key for the majority of them, a procedure not universally accepted. Ralph Kirkpatrick (born 1911, Leominster, Mass, USA) was a pupil of the twentieth century pioneer of the harpsichord revival Wanda Landowska. Apart from his career as a harpsichordist, Kirkpatrick made one of the most important studies of Scarlatti entitled Domenico Scarlatti, (Princeton and London), 1953.

Longo numbers are the other way of identifying Scarlatti’s sonatas. Alessandro Longo foreshadowed Kirkpatrick in cataloguing the sonatas in the 1910s and it was largely his collection that provided pianists of the twentieth century with editions of the sonatas edited for the modern piano. Many notable pianists, among them Dino Lipatti, Horowitz and Rubenstein, gave memorable performances of the sonatas, by no means always relegating them to the position of encore pieces. In a way Scarlatti’s mastery of the keyboard transcends the limitations — and advantages — of particular instruments. One commentator described him as the ‘greatest harpsichordist ever, and the piano’s greatest advocate’.

Maria Barbara was perhaps the most important contact in Domenico’s life as far as the composition of the harpsichord sonatas was concerned. When he moved to Lisbon, one of his duties was to teach the young Maria who was the talented daughter of King John V. Scarlatti served her for the rest of his life, and it was during this period that he composed his body of Sonatas. Maria married the Spanish Crown Prince Fernando in 1728 and moved to Madrid. Domenico followed her and remained there until his death.

Naples was Domenico’s native city. At the age of 15 he obtained the post of clavicembalista da camera at the Cappella Reale (Royal Chapel) there. Eventually his father considered the musical culture of their native city too impoverished for the talents of his most gifted son. In a celebrated letter from Rome, where he described his talented son as a ‘young eagle’, he wrote:

‘I have forcibly removed him from Naples where, though there was scope for his talent, it was not the kind of talent for such a place. I am removing him from Rome as well, because Rome has no shelter for music, which lives here as a beggar.’

Ottoboni (Cardinal Pietro), an important patron of music, was an influential figure in Scarlatti’s life. Scarlatti attended his celebrated recitals of chamber music at the Accademie Poetico-musicali while he was in Rome. There he met several important musicians from around Europe including Corelli and Handel.

Pasquini (Bernardo Pasquini 1637–1710) was the most important Italian composer of keyboard music between Frescobaldi and Scarlatti. It is possible that he taught Scarlatti at some time: certainly Scarlatti was influenced by his work. Pasquini came from Lucca but lived in Rome for most of his life and it is hardly conceivable that the two composers’ paths never crossed. Pasquini boasted an enviable reputation as a keyboard virtuoso. Although he did not write in the form of the Sonata, his Variations, Dances and Toccatas paved the way for the virtuosic figurations of Scarlatti.

Roseingrave (Thomas Roseingrave 1688–1766) was an English contemporary of Scarlatti influential in promoting what became almost a Scarlatti cult in England. They had met in Venice, according to Burney, who recounted a memorable anecdote concerning a concert at a nobleman’s house there:

‘A grave young man dressed in black and in a black wig, who had stood in one corner of the room, very quiet and attentive while Roseingrave played, being asked to sit down at the harpsichord, when he began to play, Rosy said, he thought ten hundred d----ls [devils] had been at the instrument; he had never heard such passages of execution and effect before… Upon enquiring the name of this extraordinary performer, he was told it was Domenico Scarlatti, son of the celebrated Cavalier Alessandro Scarlatti. Roseingrave declared he did not touch the harpsichord for a month after this rencontre, however, he became very intimate with the young Scarlatti, followed him to Rome and Naples, and hardly ever quitted him while he remained in Italy.’

Sonatas. Scarlatti’s sonatas have become celebrated for many reasons among them their harmonic invention and virtuosic use of the keyboard. Harmony was perhaps Domenico’s greatest skill, certainly more than counterpoint which he uses little. Unusual chains of harmonies not only sustain the unpredictability of many of his sonatas but also fascinated later composers. Even Brahms, who owned a Scarlatti manuscript, was fascinated by his work and modelled passages in his own works on Scarlatti. Most striking are the passages of ‘vagrant’ harmony, where the listener cannot guess the outcome of a strange, wandering series of chords (K.212). These often begin at the double bar which separates the two halves of the binary form, or after an unexpected pause (K.124). Also common, though always surprising, are frequent changes between major and minor (K.181, K.444, K.531).

Techniques of keyboard playing were vastly expanded by Scarlatti. Among them are cross-hand leaps of several octaves at a rapid pace, (K.27); complex arpeggiations (striking are the octave arpeggios in K.460) where trills have to be tucked in as well (K.124); left- and right-hand octaves (K.200, K. 519, K.545); reversed hands and all kinds of awkward figurations which the player has somehow to master in order to make them sound easy. He also had a cantabile style, sometimes explicit from the tempo and mood indication at the beginning of the piece, sometimes from the music itself (K.8; K.213). The present recording presents the sonatas in several ways, sometimes entirely without repeats, and sometimes with one rather than both repeats.

Toccata: the main form of keyboard piece influential on Scarlatti’s sonatas, and the title adopted for most of his father’s harpsichord music, which he published up to 1716, as well as for pieces by other Italian composers of Scarlatti’s day. Alessandro’s keyboard music should not be forgotten as influential on his son’s music for it was above all Alessandro who was generally considered to be the most important composer of keyboard Toccatas in the late Italian Baroque, quite apart from his renown as an opera composer. As with Domenico’s Essercizi certain of his father’s works were given a didactic title, for example his Toccata per studio di cembalo of 1716. While Toccatas are often in a free, sectional form, Scarlatti’s preoccupation with tight, ordered forms may have caused him to adopt the title Sonata (a sounded piece) to distance himself from the Toccata, which although it merely signified a piece played on the keyboard usually adopted a sectional and rhapsodic form.

Venice seems to have been the city on which Alessandro had set his heart as a launching pad for Domenico’s career. In 1705 he sent his son there, in the company of the celebrated castrato Nicolo Grimaldi, with a letter of recommendation to Ferdinando de’ Medici explaining his motives for sending Domenico there: ‘This son of mine is an eagle, whose wings are grown; he must not remain idle in the nest, and I must not hinder his flight’.

X was the sign for a sharp in Scarlatti’s manuscripts. He was a master of the accidental, sharpening and flattening notes in as subtle a way as romantic composers of a century and a half later. Analyst Heinrich Schenker was a great admirer of Scarlatti’s harmonic techniques, and cites his accented chromatic passing notes among techniques more usually found in nineteenth-century music.

Zampogna. Bagpipe effects occur occasionally in Scarlatti’s music but not for long. He is, however, a master of pedal points over which he weaves harmonies of which no country bagpiper could ever dream (K.235 ).

Richard Langham Smith

Record  Sr021

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Total CD = 71'23

1 - K.124 G major - 2'26
2 - K.235 G major - 2'17
3 - K.478 D major - 4'33
4 - K.444 d minor - 2'29
5 - K.466 f minor - 4'01
6 - K.519 f minor - 1'38
7 - K.18 d minor - 2'46
8 - K.64 d minor - 1'16
9 - K.490 D major - 5'03
10 - K.492 D major - 3'13
11 - K.27 b minor 2'05
12 - K.450 g minor - 1'51
13 - K.8 g minor - 2'17
14 - K.200 C major - 2'10
15 - K.56 c minor - 2'08
16 - K.507 E flat major - 3'30
17 - K.477 G major - 1'58
18 - K.460 C major - 3'36
19 - K.545 B flat major - 1'37
20 - K.213 d minor - 4'25
21 - K.396 d minor - 2'19
22 - K.265 a minor - 2'21
23 - K.181 A major - 2'21
24 - K.212 A major - 2'09
25 - K.531 E major - 1'59
26 - K.175 a minor - 2'20
27 - K.222 A major - 1'18