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Recital Review Print

Good-Humored Keyboardists Take on Domenico Scarlatti, Purveyor of Sonatas

& Notes on the Program by Alexander Silbiger

December 1, 2006 - Durham, NC:

Over in Raleigh, socialites who speak of "The Symphony" sometimes elicit the question, "Which one?," for there are several orchestras in the capital. Over in Durham, the musicologists who on December 1 put on a big Scarlatti bash — dubbed "Scarlathon" (which, pace Nathaniel Hawthorne, had nothing to do with red letters...) — might well have been asked, "Which one?," for — again — there were several distinguished musicians with that surname. The purveyor of sonatas — upwards of 550-600 or more of them — was Domenico (1685-1757), sixth child of Alessandro (1660-1725), the distinguished composer of cantatas and stage works who is known as the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. The occasion, dubbed the "First Global Scarlatti Marathon" and organized at Duke by Randall Love and Elaine Funaro, was part of an International Festival of Spanish Keyboard Music that (the program revealed) "feature[d] more than 150 performers from 12 institutions, 11 cities, and 7 countries, w[ho] perform[ed] all 555 (sic) Scarlatti sonatas on an array of different keyboards: harpsichords, clavichords, pianofortes, organs and modern pianos." Participating US institutions included Florida State University, Duke, South Dakota University and the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota, and the Longy School of Music.

At Duke, in Bone Hall, on harpsichord, fortepiano, and piano, students, teachers, and seasoned professionals played 71 sonatas in a little over four hours. There were breaks in the proceedings; even with relatively short sonatas, sitting through 71 was a bit of an endurance test. As it happened, the 5:00 p.m. starting time precluded some representatives of the working class from taking in the whole event, but what are ten or twenty Scarlatti sonatas among friends? When your faithful reporter arrived, the first break was just ending, and student Alyssa Zhu was making her third appearance as soloist, playing a charming pair of works in C major on the fortepiano. (The pairing of these works by Zhu and many other artists was the session's major revelation – for details of this phenomenal phenomenon, see Alexander Silbiger's illuminating program notes, reprinted immediately below with the distinguished scholar's permission.) The fortepiano was used but little during the marathon, although its sound was relatively rich and pleasing. The closest thing to an "original instrument" was the harpsichord, although the one employed was not the kind likely known by the composer. Nonetheless, Funaro and Jessica Wood (a student of Robert Parkins) made their sonatas sing eloquently and gave great pleasure to the small but attentive — and at times enraptured — crowd. Love made magic of his own with fortepiano renditions of four items — two pairs, on the heels of which "big piano" readings by Elizabeth Tomlin, Nan Lin, and John Santoianni sounded quite large. (The last-named artist is Duke's chief keyboard technician, and his performance of three sonatas marked his local debut, after five years in the maintenance trenches; here's  hoping he will be playing again, and soon!) Funaro brought this section to a close with two more radiant works, after which the presenters did all they could to get the attendees to help consume leftover sandwiches, cookies, cashew brittle, etc.

The grand finale involved a host of artists whose work often enriches the Triangle music scene. Benjamin Ward gave heartfelt readings of four works, Meredith's Frank Pittman made the first of two appearances, and former Duke Music Chairman Alexander Silbiger played a glorious pair that made the wisdom of the program's matching up of these scores abundantly clear. UNCG's Andrew Willis earned what was probably the evening's heartiest applause for his sonorous re-creations of four works, but then University Organist Robert Parkins showed that his keyboard mastery is not limited to devices linked to pipes and augmented by pedals! Meredith's James Fogle cast light on a big, bold pair of sonatas, Funaro gave another bit of proof that the harpsichord is perhaps the best instrument for savoring Scarlatti today, and Love closed the formal proceedings with a "big piano" pair that brought down the house, figuratively speaking.

At the end, Pittman sight-read one scheduled work that had been omitted, due to the illness of a participant, and Willis played through another one. These supplemental solo bits were mighty fine, but the most fun of the evening came as Love and Jane Hawkins turned two solo sonatas into piano duets (the musicologists may have been muttering beneath their breath...). Then, to wrap it up for real, Love and Funaro gave similar treatment to yet one more. It was something.

And that "something" merits just a word or two. Scarlatti, like Bach, has been served up in many guises, ranging from full orchestrations (Vincenzo Tommassini's ballet, The Good-Humored Ladies) to hall-filling realizations played on our largest, strongest concert grands. There's something to be said for the fact that Scarlatti sonatas may be more fun to play than they are to listen to, but this experience demonstrated that world-class artists are not required for these pieces to give pleasure to those who hear them. There's infinite variety in these little works and a good deal more charm when heard in matched sets. If next year, the 250th anniversary of Domenico Scarlatti's death, brings lots more of these sonatas to recital programs in North Carolina, so much the better. Most of them will be "new" to their listeners. They will surely not be disappointed!

Notes on the Program

The year 1685 saw the birth not only of J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel but also, down South in Naples, of Domenico Scarlatti. Like his Baroque contemporaries, Scarlatti wrote in a variety of forms, including church music, secular cantatas, and operas, but today he is mostly remembered for his keyboard sonatas. He wrote an astonishing number of them, somewhere between 550 and 600 — the precise number is a moving target, because new ones continue to be discovered.

Scarlatti's sonatas generally consist of a single movement divided into two parts, each of which is repeated. As such, they have little to do with the European tradition of multi-movement sonatas from Corelli to Brahms, but are only sonatas in the original, Italian sense of "a played thing," as opposed to a cantata, "a sung thing." Scarlatti filled that seemingly invariable format with an inexhaustible flow of new musical ideas evoking the varied musical worlds of his life. From his native land we hear echoes of Neapolitan songs and dances and of opera buffa and commedia del'arte. From his adopted homeland, Spain, where he spent many years at court as personal musician and teacher to Queen Maria Barbara, he calls up the sounds of the festive trumpets and drums of ceremony and of the royal hunt, but also the music of street and countryside, imitating, in the words of the eighteenth-century writer Charles Burney, "the tunes sung by carriers, muleteers, and the common people." Most arresting are the reminiscences of the fiery guitar strumming and "cante jondo" he heard from Flamenco musicians during his long sojourn in Andalusia. From all these heterogeneous elements he created a unique, instantly recognizable keyboard style. The originality of his textures and surprising harmonic turns has no equal even in the keyboard music of his famous contemporaries. One needs to go to Chopin, or perhaps Debussy, to find a comparable genius for keyboard writing.

Many pianists are not aware that while most sonatas comprise only a single movement, many are found in the original manuscripts as pairs of two in the same key (or parallel minor/major) with some form of contrast in tempo, meter, or character. Sometimes there even are indications that the members of the pair should be played immediately after each other, like a two-movement sonata. Unfortunately, in the first complete edition of the sonatas, prepared in the early twentieth century by Alessandro Longo, and still used by many pianists, the order of all the sonatas was entirely rearranged, and in the process all the pairs were broken up. As a result there are few piano recordings of Scarlatti in which the sonatas appear with their mates. Tonight, however, those sonatas that exist as pairs will be played accordingly.

None of the three instruments used in tonight's concert corresponds exactly to any of the instruments Scarlatti ordinarily would have played. His primary instrument was indeed a harpsichord, but he would have used an Italian or a rather similar Spanish-type instrument. Such instruments had a very bright and colorful sound, with a faster decay than the North-European harpsichords. Most had only a single manual, with two 8' registers (at pitch) or perhaps one 8' and one 4' (at the octave), with no way of changing registration during performance. Whether Scarlatti might also have used a fortepiano has been a topic of much debate. There were a few Florentine fortepianos at the Spanish court, possibly made by the instrument's inventor, Cristofori, or one of his pupils, but some of these had been converted to harpsichords, probably because those early instruments were rather unreliable and no one knew how to fix them. In any case, they would not have been much like the Mozartian-era instrument used here. The earliest pianos sounded more like harpsichords, but even more delicate and softer — the original motivation for the invention of the fortepiano was not to produce an instrument louder than the harpsichord or one that would sustain better, but an instrument more capable of dynamic nuance: hence its original name, cembalo di piano e forte, or the soft and loud harpsichord.

Of course, pianists enjoy playing Scarlatti on their instrument and there is no reason why they shouldn't. Playing a Scarlatti sonata on any kind of keyboard is perhaps even more fun than listening to one. But on a modern piano it does become like playing an arrangement — like the arrangements for string orchestra made by his contemporary, Charles Avison — and something is always lost in translation. For example, the dense "cluster" chords and fiery dissonant clashes are very exciting on a harpsichord, but sound thick and muddy on a piano. In fact, in the old Longo edition those chords have been thinned out and many of the dissonances removed, along with other editorial adjustments, to conform to "modern" taste. It is true that under gifted hands something may also be gained by a performance on a modern piano, but not something envisioned by the composer. Nevertheless, with all our concerns over instruments, editions, and ordering, we must remain mindful of Scarlatti's disarming preface to the 1738 publication of his Essercizi (Sonatas K.1-30):

Reader, Don't expect, whether you are an amateur or a professional, to find profound intention in these compositions, but rather a clever jesting with art, by means of which you may attain freedom in playing the harpsichord.... Be therefore kind rather than critical, and your pleasure will be the greater. Vivi felice! [Live happily!].

- Alexander Silbiger

(Reprinted with the kind permission of the author.)