There are two ways of approaching this disc. One could consider
it a hotchpotch of pieces without any connection, apart from being
written by one and the same composer. But one can also enjoy the
disc as an interesting overview of some of the genres Alessandro
Scarlatti tackled. The choice is yours.
There are two pieces which throw rare light on aspects of Scarlatti's
oeuvre. The first is the Toccata for harpsichord in A. The harpsichord
is mostly associated with Domenico rather than with his father
Alessandro. But if one wonders where Domenico's talent came
from here is the answer. Alessandro's keyboard music is much
more than 'pupil fodder' as it is characterised in New Grove.
It is of remarkable quality and several features of Domenico's
harpsichord style are prefigured in his father's keyboard music.
The Toccata in A, well played here by Matthew Dirst, should
encourage the listener to explore this repertoire. I would like
to recommend here recordings by Alexander Weimann (ATMA) and
Rinaldo Alessandrini (Arcana).
The instrumental music is also one of the lesser-known aspects of Alessandro's
oeuvre. Not that it is completely neglected: in particular the
Sinfonie di Concerto grosso and the Sonatas for recorder and
strings are performed and recorded now and then. But there are
still compositions which are hardly known, and the three sonatas
for cello and bc are among them. I can't remember having ever
heard them, which is a shame. The Sonata in c minor is a very
nice piece in four movements, which is performed here with verve.
The artists pay much attention to the strong contrasts in tempo
between the movements. The second, an allegro, is played at
high speed, but excellently articulated. The closing presto
is very short, and therefore the allegro is repeated after it.
That is a rather odd decision for which there is no justification
The disc opens with a specimen of the genre Alessandro Scarlatti was
most famous for: the chamber cantata. He wrote more than 600
and it isn't very hard to find a cantata which hasn't been recorded
before. That is the case here with 'Euridice dall'Inferno',
in which the soprano in three pairs of recitatives and arias
describes Euridice’s feelings during her stay in the underworld,
expressing her longing for Orpheus to come to collect her. Melissa
Givens has a rather bad start, singing the first recitative
with too wide a vibrato, even though she sings it with good
expression. But the next aria is a lot better: she keeps her
vibrato under control and sings the text in an expressive way.
The rest of the cantata is at the same level: Ms Givens sings
the recitatives with the right amount of rhythmic freedom and
adds some nice ornamentation in the dacapo arias. She is well
aware of the fact that ornamentation in a dacapo isn't just
an opportunity for the singer to show her skills, but also a
way to emphasize the 'affetti' of the aria. From that angle
the extended ornamentation on the first word of the second aria,
"non", makes sense. I could have imagined some stronger
dynamic shading, for instance on "fuoco" (fire) in
the first aria, by means of a 'messa di voce'. The last pair
of recitative and aria are the highlight of the cantata and
of the performance: the strong emotions come out very well.
The largest piece on this disc is an oratorio. Scarlatti wrote quite
a number of oratorios and in recent years several of them have
been recorded. But all of these are longer works on an Italian
text which in character differs little from the operas. 'La
concettione della Beata Vergine' is different in that it is
rather short and its text is in Latin. In this respect it reminds
me of the oratorios which Giacomo Carissimi wrote in the middle
of the 17th century. Stylistically the work is up to date, though,
as Scarlatti makes use of the dacapo form in the arias, as in
the previous cantata. In his programme notes Matthew Dirst writes
that the sources suggest this oratorio has probably had a predecessor,
a somewhat longer work that has got lost. He also refers to
some incongruities between text and music, which suggests someone
else has put the music of Scarlatti to a new text.
The subject is the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, a doctrine
which was highly controversial in the early 18th century and
not universally accepted. Pope Clement XI put an end to the
debate as he made the Feast of the Immaculate Conception a holiday
of obligation in 1708. He knew Alessandro Scarlatti well as
both were members of the Accademia of the Swedish Queen Christina,
who had settled in Rome after her conversion to Catholicism. Through this acquaintance Scarlatti
could have been encouraged to write an oratorio on this subject.
Whereas oratorios on Italian text were becoming more and more
substitutes for the opera - whose performances were forbidden
during Lent - this oratorio completely links up with tradition
in which this form of music was considered a perfect vehicle
to spread the message of the Counter-Reformation.
The four soloists represent four characters: the archangel Michael
(soprano), Gratia (grace - alto), Haeresis (heresy - tenor)
and Serpens (the serpent - bass). As usual the oratorio consists
of two parts, and contains a sequence of recitatives and short
arias, plus some duets and a trio. Even though text and music
sometimes are in conflict this is a nice piece which deserves
to be performed. Generally speaking the soloists give good performances.
Only the bass has some problems with the top notes in his recitative
'Sile, gratia, sile'. But in his next aria he shows his great
expressive skills. This aria also has a very beautiful basso
continuo part which is played with considerable drive. The duet
of tenor and bass, 'Fida comes sum', and the alto aria 'Sydera
micabant' are also done rather well. The instrumental ensemble
performs at the same level, although I noticed some intonation
problems in one of the violins now and then.
As I said, there are two ways of approaching this disc. Although I
would have liked a bit more coherence in the programme I am
glad that these particular pieces have been recorded. In particular
the two vocal items are fine additions to the growing catalogue
of Scarlatti's vocal music. The interpreters have certainly
succeeded in bringing the music's quality into the limelight.
Lovers of Alessandro Scarlatti's music in particular should
not overlook this disc.
Johan van Veen
see also Review
by Mark Sealey