In the year 1685 three boys were born who would become three of the greatest composers of all time: Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. The former two are known for various compositions: vocal - sacred and secular - music for instrumental ensembles of various sizes and kinds, and music for keyboard. Domenico Scarlatti contributed to all those genres as well, but he is almost exclusively known for his harpsichord sonatas. Although some of his vocal and instrumental works are performed and recorded now and then, his name mostly appears on discs with keyboard music. Numerous players of harpsichord, organ, clavichord, fortepiano and also the modern concert grand perform and record his sonatas. Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas were also among the first works which were played on the newly-discovered harpsichord in the early 20th century, for instance by Wanda Landowska.
Domenico seems to have been an exceptionally talented keyboard player at a young age. When he was just 15 he was already appointed as organist and harpsichordist of the Cappella Reale in Naples. But his career was fated not to blossom for as long as he was under the wings of his father who seems to have been a quite authoritarian character. Therefore it must have been a great relief for Domenico when he was appointed as mestre of the royal chapel in Portugal by King João V. He left for Lisbon in 1719. Soon he started to devote himself almost exclusively to the keyboard. He became the teacher of João's daughter Maria Barbara. When in 1729 she married Ferdinando, the Spanish infante, Domenico followed her to Spain. Here he continued to teach Maria Barbara and started to compose sonatas for the keyboard. The result is 555 sonatas in the catalogue which was compiled by the prominent Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick. Since then more sonatas have been discovered, and now the total number of his sonatas is assumed to be over 600.
Strangely enough none of these sonatas exist in Domenico's own handwriting. Most of them circulated throughout Europe in copies. The main sources of his sonatas are the 30 printed in London in 1738 or 1739 as Essercizi per gravicembalo and two collections of manuscripts which are preserved in Venice and in Parma respectively. The large corpus of sonatas shows a great variety but many of them have been clearly influenced by what Scarlatti may have heard at the streets of Spanish cities and villages. At the same time he experimented with new playing techniques, like fast note repetitions and crossed hands. It seems Domenico worked in a relatively isolated position, and that may have stimulated him to be original.
Mathieu Dupouy has made a fine and various selection of sonatas, some of which are quite familiar - in particular the last three (K 490 - 492) - whereas others are far less often played. Most tempi are fast: of the 24 sonatas on this disc only a small number have tempo indications like moderato (K 513, first section; K 273, second section) or andante (K 213). Dupouy also takes a moderate tempo in the Sonata K 87 which has no tempo indication. Most sonatas have indications like presto, (molto) allegro, allegrissimo or vivo. Many sonatas contain percussionistic passages which reflect Spanish traditional music, for instance the Sonata K 141. The rhythm of the Sonata K 175 may also been inspired by traditional music. It also contains some strong dissonants.
A difficult question in regard to the performance of Scarlatti's sonatas is what would be the ideal instrument to play them. It is known that Maria Barbara owned 12 keyboard instruments, divided over her palaces. Seven of these were harpsichords of various kinds and sizes, the other five were fortepianos. Two of the latter, however, were rebuilt into harpsichords, suggesting that the sound of the harpsichord was very much preferred. None of the instruments have survived, therefore it is not possible to define exactly what they were like. Some of them must have been quite big: one had four pairs of strings and five stops, one of which may have been a 16'. Mathieu Dupouy plays a very special instrument which is attributed to Gasparre Sabbatino who probably has built it around 1710 in Naples. It is a so-called harpsichord-tiorbino, the only instrument of its kind which has been preserved. Unusually for an Italian harpsichord it consists of two manuals. The upper manual is reserved for the tiorbino whose strings are gut. The lower manual has three stops: two 8' and a buff stop.
The sound this instrument produces is quite unusual and highly fascinating. The possibilities it offers to the player are generally explored with good taste. I wasn't always convinced about the registration, though, in particular in the Sonata K 431 where the right hand plays the tiorbino and the left hand the buff stop at the lower manual. In some sonatas particular episodes are singled out by playing them on a different register.
It is not only the instrument which makes this disc worthwhile. I am also impressed by Mathieu Dupouy's interpretations which are bold and imaginative. His use of rubato adds considerable tension to his performances. He has captivated the character of the various sonatas very well, and his choice of tempi is generally convincing. His treatment of repeats is questionable. In his programme notes he writes that "I have chosen to call one habitual practice into question by non systematically playing all the repeats since I fail to see why, of all the rules, Scarlatti would have respected that one in particular, and it seems to me that in certain cases, the form is blurred". I don't know to what extent Scarlatti has indicated that repeats should be played, but if he has, they definitely should be played.
This is a very fine disc. The instrument and the interpretation make it stand out among the many discs with Scarlatti sonatas which are released every year. The booklet contains programme notes by Mathieu Dupouy and information about the harpsichord by him as well as by Olivier Fadin, who has restored it, and Alan Rubin who is its happy owner. The booklet also contains a picture of this beautiful instrument.
Johan van Veen