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Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725)
Sonata 1a a 4 senza cembalo in f minor [07:13]
Sonata 2a a 4 senza cembalo in c minor [07:43]
Giovanni Maria TRABACI (1575-1647)
Durezze e ligature [02:32]
Carlo GESUALDO da Venosa (1566-1613)
Gagliarda del Principe di Venosa [01:29]
Alessandro SCARLATTI
Sonata 3a a 4 senza cembalo in g minor [08:03]
Sonata 4a a 4 senza cembalo in d minor [06:33]
Francesco SCARLATTI (1666-1741)
Sonata IX in D [08:40]
Alessandro & Francesco SCARLATTI
Sonata in a minor (ed. Matthieu Camilleri) [05:55]
Sonata IV in e minor [05:45]
Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757)
Sonata in b minor (K 87) (arr Matthieu Camilleri) [05:11]
Les Récréations
rec. 2020, Église Notre-Dame de l'Assomption, Basse-Bodeux, Belgium
Reviewed as a stereo 16/44 download with pdf booklet from Outhere
RICERCAR RIC422 [59:37]

In his prime, Alessandro Scarlatti was widely admired as one of the main composers of vocal music: operas, oratorios, church music and secular cantatas. Towards the end of his life, he was considered a man of the past, mainly because of the importance of counterpoint in his oeuvre. Not only his vocal music bears witness of that, but also his instrumental works. Although the latter take a relatively minor place in his output, it includes some quite remarkable pieces. Those are the main subject of the disc under review here.

At first sight, there is little remarkable about sonatas in four parts, scored for strings. What is notable, however, and where the four sonatas which are obviously meant as a cycle, differ from what was written in Scarlatti's time, is that the participation of a harpsichord is specifically excluded. As it was the task of the player of the harpsichord - or any chordal instrument, for that matter - to work out the harmony indicated by the figured bass, we have four pieces without a basso continuo here. Where exactly do we have to position these pieces from a historical perspective?

Matthieu Camilleri, the first violinist of Les Récréations, who wrote the liner-notes to this recording, states that they are "situated halfway between the viol consort and the string quartet". One may wonder whether these sonatas are reminiscent of a gone era or rather point in the direction of the future. Maybe they do both. It is interesting that in the manuscript of these sonatas the titles include the term a tavolino: around the table. This refers to the practice of singing madrigals around a table, each of the singers with his or her part on it. This practice is also known from the way consort music was played in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. This term connects these pieces to the madrigals Scarlatti composed during a period of his career that he was highly interested in strict counterpoint. In letters referring to this part of his career, he twice mentions the name of Carlo Gesualdo. It is useful to add here that Scarlatti also composed church music in the stile antico, for instance a Missa alla Palestrina. From the term a tavolino Camilleri concludes that these sonatas may be intended as a type of instrumental madrigal.

Counterpoint, especially that according to the principles of the stile antico, means that all the voices are treated on equal footing, and exactly that is the case here. No wonder that all of them include a fugue, the most obvious demonstration of this procedure. In the first sonata, it is the second movement that has the form of a fugue - just as in the sonata da chiesa - but the other three open with a fugue. The latter shows that these sonatas don't fall into the category of the sonata da chiesa according to the model established by Corelli. Camilleri mentions that there was even quite a distance between Scarlatti and Corelli: according to Charles Burney, Scarlatti confided to his colleague Francesco Geminiani that he could find nothing in Corelli's style that he found worthy of admiration.

An important feature of these four sonatas is the use of harmony. Camilleri writes: "Alessandro Scarlatti wasa musical colorist and therefore naturally inclined towards harmonic experimentation: one of his contemporaries described him as the uomo più inteso di contrapunto" (the man most learned in counterpoint). The sonatas are all in minor keys, tends toward the Dorian mode and are dominated by flats. "[The] progression of the keys from F,C,G to D minor reveals a slow path towards the light". With this Camilleri indicates that he believes that these sonatas are indeed meant as a cycle. There are quite some chromaticism and dissonances in them. A striking example of a movement with marked dissonances is the grave from the Sonata 4a.

It is for that reason that the performers have included two pieces from the early 17th century, when composers were highly involved in harmonic experiments, especially in and around Naples. Gesualdo and Trabaci are two of its main representatives. These pieecs were originally intended for the keyboard, but as here no keyboard is involved, they are played by the strings. This way the connection between them and the sonatas by Scarlatti is also underlined.

The performers also added two sonatas by Francesco Scarlatti, Alessandro's lesser succesful brother. He was appointed as violinist at the royal court in Napels in 1684, but returned to his birth-place Palermo in 1691, and stayed there for about 24 years. He tried to find appointments at the courts of Vienna and Naples, but failed. In 1719 he travelled to London, where he participated in public concerts. In 1733 he went to Dublin, where he seems to have died in 1741 or soon after. Charles Avison included sonatas by him in his Workbook I, where they are turned into concerti grossi. Avison was very keen to transcribe chamber music (such as violin sonatas by Geminiani) and keyboard works (Domenico Scarlatti's sonatas) as concerti grossi, a highly popular form of instrumental music at the time. It is not entirely clear whether he was himself responsible for this adaptation or whether Francesco Scarlatti had arranged them himself. It seems likely that his sonatas in their original form date from before his arrival in England.

A single movement from another of his sonatas is included in a 'pasticcio sonata'; the other movements are transcriptions of keyboard pieces by Alessandro. This part of the latter's oeuvre receives not that much attention, but show that Domenico inherited much of his talent at the keyboard from his father. (In recent years, a complete recording of Alessandro's keyboard works has been released by Tactus.) The disc closes with another transcription of a keyboard piece: one of Domenico's best-known and most impressive sonatas. Its tempo indication - andante - reflects its character; better than probably any of his sonatas it lends itself to be played on strings.

It brings to a close a most interesting programme of unusual pieces. Scarlatti's four sonatas have been played and recorded before, but probably not this well. These are simply superb performances, which bring out the nature of these pieces to the full. There is an excellent balance between the four instruments in the ensemble. The perfect intonation makes sure that the harmonic peculiarities come off to full extent. The playing and recording is such that a maximum transparency is achieved, which allows the listener to follow the individual lines. The tempi are convincing, and there is some effective dynamic shading.

This is a disc not to be missed and deserves a special recommendation.

Johan van Veen

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