Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas

He has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled dreams, the harsh better wail of Gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all, the wiry tension of the Spanish dance.
--Ralph Kirkpatrick, harpsichordist and Scarlatti biographer

Quite frankly, it's pure luck that any of Domenico Scarlatti's beautiful music survived at all.
Ivo Pogorelich, piano
Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757)
Scarlatti: Sonaten
Deutsche Grammophon, 1992
The original manuscripts of his famous harpsichord sonatas were discarded upon his death, and if it weren't for his wife who had seen to it that his work was copied, his entire oeuvre would likely have disappeared down the memory hole.

Worse, even those copies were ignored for more than a century.

Scarlatti was born into an extremely musical family in Italy, and he was a startlingly talented harpsichordist. But it wasn't until he left Italy to be the private teacher of a princess in Portugal's royal court (the gifted harpsichordist and future queen of Portugal, Maria Barbara) that his genius for composition began to shine.

Scarlatti composed some 600 sonatas for his star pupil, but only published some 30 during his lifetime, dedicating them to the King of Portugal. A deeply unpretentious man, Scarlatti modestly named the opus Exercises for the Harpsichord, as if it were some forgettable book of etudes.

Ironically, Scarlatti's works didn't find a wide audience until a century after his death. In 1838, Carl Czerny (once Beethoven's pupil and a gifted pianist and composer in his own right) edited and published some 200 hundred of Scarlatti's sonatas. And in the early 1900s another 300 of his sonatas became available, thanks to the Italian composer Alessandro Longo.

Listener Notes for Scarlatti's Sonatas:
(One preliminary note: I'll be using Kirkpatrick numbering for these sonatas)
1) This is the second time I've had the privilege of listening to Ivo Pogorelich: I wrote about his performance of Chopin's stunningly beautiful Preludes more than a year ago. Today's CD features an older, slightly more contemplative Ivo--at least that's what we're apparently supposed to think, judging by the cover photograph of him gazing sadly at us out of the corners of his eyes from what appears to be an Elizabethan-era parlor. One of the more amusingly pretentious examples of classical music cover art.

2) Sonata #20 (Track 1 on this CD): Obviously, these works were written for harpsichord, not piano. And Pogorelich plays this sonata in a particularly bouncy, staccato style, as if he's trying replicate the harpsichord's sound on his piano.

3) Another harpsichord vs. piano thought: the harpsichord has no dynamic range--it can only play notes at one volume level. The piano, however, allows the musician to change volume by striking the keys more or less firmly (hence the derivation of the piano's original name, the pianoforte). In fact, the piano enables many phrasing subtleties that cannot be played on a harpsichord. Thus it bears asking, how many artistic liberties is Pogorelich taking when he performs these works? And are they justifiable liberties?

4) Sonata #9 (Track 3): Have you ever heard this many trills in four minutes' worth of music?

5) These sonatas are all 3-5 minutes long, perfect for the modern listener's attention span, and a lot more profound and relaxing than most of the popular music out there.

6) Sonata #1 (Track 5) is a personal favorite of mine. I like the suspense, the minor key and the various flourishes and idiosyncrasies of this work.

7) Did the producers of this CD scramble the numerical order of these sonatas just to annoy me? Here's the order of sonatas: 20, 135, 9, 119, 1, 87, 98, 13, etc. It looks like some kind of Fibonacci sequence.

8) Sonata #13 (Track 8) is supposed to be played fast, at least according to the work's subtitle, Presto, but Pogorelich takes it easy and plays it at a tempo more like the Allegro of Sonata #1. More artistic liberties.

9) Sonata #8 (Track 9) sounds like something Chopin or Schumann might write--one hundred years after Scarlatti lived! Admittedly, this might be a function of Pogorelich's choice of a ponderously slow tempo rather than the Allegro marked on the piece.

10) Sonata #487 (Track 13) is another personal favorite. It sounds like an Eastern European folk tune, with dissonant chords, interesting syncopation--and lots of grace notes, trills and embellishments throughout.

And when the final track ends, all I want to do is figure out where I can more of these amazing sonatas. After all, there are 600 of them!

Please take a look at my other blogs!
Casual Kitchen: Cook More. Think More. Spend Less.
Quick Writing Tips: Short posts on writing, twice a week.

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