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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)


Con qual cor mi chiedi pace? [09:11]
Sonata for harpsichord in D (K 277) [04:27]
Fille, già più non parlo [11:20]
Sonata for harpsichord in E (K 215) [03:20]
Qual pensier, quale ardire [11:29]
Sonata for harpsichord in d minor (K 77) [03:25]
No, non fuggire [10:19]
Ti ricorda, o bella Irene [12:48]

Portrait Max Emanuel Cencic (German with English subtitles)
Max Emanuel Cencic (alto), Maya Amrein (cello), Yasunori Imamura (theorbo, guitar), Aline Zylberajch (fortepiano)
rec. September 2004, June 2005, Studio of Deutschlandfunk, Cologne, Germany. DDD
CAPRICCIO 67 173 [CD: 68:24 + DVD: 62:00]

Domenico Scarlatti is almost exclusively associated with his 600 sonatas for keyboard. But, as with most composers of his time, he also contributed to other genres including music for instrumental ensemble and vocal music. In the early stages of his career, when he was still in Italy, he composed several operas. As there was a close connection between the opera and the chamber cantata it come as no surprise that his output includes several specimens of the latter genre, which was extremely popular throughout Europe. It has taken some time for Domenico's cantatas to achieve any real appreciation. Indicative of the rather negative view of these works is the judgement of the prominent Scarlatti expert Ralph Kirkpatrick, who described Domenico's vocal style as "so lacking in individuality that I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following works". The lack of appreciation seems to be caused to a large extent by a misunderstanding about their time of composition. It was thought that most cantatas were written early in Scarlatti's life in Italy. But now it is assumed that many of them were written in Spain in the 1740s. This means that they reflect the stylistic development associated with the middle of the 18th century.

The cantatas recorded here are also presumed to have been written at that time, probably for the soprano castrato Farinelli, born as Carlo Broschi in 1705. After a very successful career as an opera singer he decided to go to Madrid at the request of the Spanish queen who hoped his singing would help her husband, King Philip V, to overcome his depression. His close friendship with the King drew him into diplomatic activities. When the King died in 1746 Farinelli became director of a theatre, and gradually withdrew from performing as a singer in public. He was by then well past his prime as a singer, and that could be the reason Scarlatti’s writing largely shuns virtuosity. But there is also a stylistic reason. During the 1740s there was a growing demand for a 'natural' style of composing. In theatrical music this meant that characters should be portrayed in a more natural way, reflecting their different moods according to the situation. This also meant the end of the baroque principle of 'unity of affections'. In the cantatas recorded here Scarlatti pays tribute to this new ideal of 'naturalness' through contrasting affections within arias.

There seem not to be too many similarities between these cantatas and the harpsichord sonatas. The cantatas lack the extravagance of so many of the sonatas. This can be explained in part by the fact that Scarlatti wrote the sonatas for his own use; many may originate in improvisations. A cantata written out to be performed by someone else is a wholly different thing. Even so there are similarities including those arias which are predominantly lyrical in character. Not all Scarlatti's sonatas are fast, virtuosic and exuberant. The slower arias in the cantatas on this disc are comparable to sonatas with tempo indications like 'andante' or 'cantabile'. And to a certain extent the more exuberant sonatas are recognizable in the faster and more virtuosic arias. Here we find large leaps in the solo part as well as some strikingly sharp rhythms.

All cantatas on this disc were written for soprano. This was common practice in the 18th century, but it does not mean they were always sung by sopranos. It was far from unusual to transpose cantatas for a performance by a lower voice. I don't know whether the cantatas on this disc have been transposed. It is possible that they are in the original key, considering the rather low pitch in this recording (a=411') and the singer's tessitura. Cencic has a well-developed high register and describes his voice as ‘mezzo-soprano’. He started his career as a male soprano. Years ago I heard him live in this capacity, and it was pretty awful. This was probably the time he was close to the artistic and personal crisis he very frankly talks about in the documentary on the DVD which accompanies this disc. After staying away from singing for some time he made a comeback and decided to sing as an alto. That was a wise decision, as he sounds much more comfortable in this register. One also can hear the text, which was not the case when he sang as a soprano; not that I am really pleased by his voice. His high register is strong, but also a little shrill. In the middle and lower register his voice is much more pleasant. What I find most problematic is his continuous, wide vibrato. It is not only tiresome, but also questionable from a historical point of view. Otherwise there is nothing amiss. He prefers singing in the theatre, and that is reflected in his performances of these cantatas.

One aspect of this interpretation is the use of a fortepiano both in the basso continuo and in the sonatas that are scattered throughout the programme. The instrument used is a copy of a very early specimen of the fortepiano, according to the booklet "made in Bartolomeo Cristofori's workshop and signed Giovanni Ferrini 1730". Scarlatti once ordered a fortepiano for the Spanish court. "The comparatively soft but dynamically variable tone of this immensely "modern" and "sensitive" instrument is eminently suited to intimate chamber music and above all to accompanying the voice", according to Karsten Erik Ose in the booklet. That may be true, but in this case I am often disappointed by the results. In the more introverted arias it works rather well, but in the more dramatic arias and recitatives it lacks profile and the ability to give rhythmic support. In the last aria of the second cantata, 'Filli, già più non parlo', the fortepiano is clearly overpowered by the guitar. It is no coincidence that many conductors prefer a harpsichord for the accompaniment of the singers even in operas and oratorios of the late 18th century.

To sum up: this disc offers an interesting programme of hardly-known repertoire. That’s the reason I recommend it. But those who can't stand continuous vibrato are well advised to stay away. The DVD is interesting, because of some early recordings by Cencic as a treble – for five years he was a member of the Wiener Sängerknaben – and because of the frankness and honesty of Cencic, who seems to be a very sensitive and modest character. It is in German, with subtitles in English, not always very precise, but good enough to understand what Cencic means.

Johan van Veen


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