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
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