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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685–1757)
Te Deum (1721/1729?) [5.47]
Missa Brevis ‘La Stella’ (1708?) [17.33]
Cibavit nos Dominus (1708?) [3.24]
Magnificat [12.23]
Stabat Mater [21.38]
The Immortal Bach Ensemble/Morten Schuldt-Jensen
rec. 18-21 September 2006, Bethanienkirche, Leipzig; 11-12 October 2006, Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig
NAXOS 8.570382 [64.06]
Experience Classicsonline

Domenico Scarlatti’s early career seems to have taken place in his father Alessandro’s shadow. In fact Alessandro had taken quite a strong controlling interest in Domenico’s career. Only in 1717 did Domenico begin to gain some sort of independence. When Domenico finally escaped his father completely, by moving to  Lisbon and then Madrid, he branched out in entirely new fields with the harpsichord sonatas. But his early career as a composer was dominated by his work in secular and sacred vocal music - areas where his father excelled.

This new disc from the Immortal Bach Ensemble allows us to hear a selection of his early sacred music. The Immortal Bach Ensemble was founded in 2001 by Morten Schuldt-Jensen as the Leipzig based Gewandhaus Kammerchor. The ensemble changed its name to the Immortal Bach Ensemble in 2006; the name comes from the title piece by the Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt.

The first piece on the disc, the Te Deum in C major for double choir and continuo, is probably the most recent. It seems to have been written for Lisbon either in 1721 or for the marriage in 1729 of Domenico’s pupil Infanta Maria Barbara. It is an attractive, lively work which, at just under six minutes duration, does not outstay its welcome.

In 1707 Domenico’s father, Alessandro, had reluctantly become director of music at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Domenico is known to have been involved at the church on at least two occasions and a group of his works have been identified in the church archives. These include the Missa Brevis ‘La Stella’ and the motet ‘Cibavit nos Dominus’, which are performed on this disc.

The Missa Brevis ‘La Stella’ is scored for two four-part choirs and continuo, the second choral group forming a sort of ripieno ensemble. The setting mixes the stile antico of Palestrina with more modern continuo-based sections. Scarlatti’s use of two choirs and the mixing of choral and solo episodes means that the work has a pleasantly varied texture. The mass is relatively compact; this is attractively useful music and receives a lively and committed performance from Schuldt-Jensen and his ensemble.

The group sings the motet ‘Cibavit nos Dominus’ unaccompanied, which is entirely apt given that it is written in stile antico. The Magnificat is also sung unaccompanied. This work comes from the Santini collection in Munster and probably dates from Scarlatti’s period (1714-1719) as maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia at the Vatican. It is a fine and substantial work, one which is entirely in keeping with the traditional musical styles which Scarlatti would have learned. It displays his command of church music rather than showing any tendency to branch out into pastures new. Perhaps his father’s influence lay heavy on his composing style as well as his career appointments.

The final work on the disc is Domenico Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater, a work which could be seen to rival his father’s famous setting of the same text. Domenico’s is for two five-part choirs and continuo, but he rarely uses all voices together choosing instead to create a series of contrasting textures. The work also comes from the Santini collection and its dating is a little unsure.

The choir numbers just ten singers (four soprano, two alto, two tenor, two bass) so that in the double choir works we are reduced to one singer to a part in the lower registers, which possibly reflects the practice of Scarlatti’s time. This means that we are very dependent on the quality of the individual singers. By and large they stand up to this scrutiny, impressing with their vividness and commitment even if they are not quite as clean as would be ideal in some of the more elaborate passages.

The music on this disc provides a fascinating glimpse of the Italian Domenico Scarlatti, before he commenced his great sequence of harpsichord sonatas. The music is unfailingly good-natured, enjoyable, attractive and well put together, whilst missing the element of greatness which characterises his harpsichord works.

In these performers he has fine interpreters. I would have preferred a slightly larger choral group for the double choir works, but the singers cope admirably and the slips are slight and only occasional. They more than compensate by their varied and vivid performances, with a lively attention to the text. This is an attractive disc, highly recommendable to anyone wanting to find out what Domenico Scarlatti did before he wrote harpsichord sonatas.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by Johan van Veen



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