Scarlatti – Sonatas

Release Date: 02 November 1992

Label: Deutsche Grammophon

Producer: Karl August-Naegler

Recording place: Beethovensaal, Hannover

Total playing time: CD [60:00]

Copyright: © 1992 Deutsche Grammophon


02 November 1992

In 1685 Naples was as populous, as noisy, and as dirty as it is now. […] The inhabitants of these dark alley dens on the Neapolitan hillside lived then, as they live now, in the street. The street was not only the thoroughfare and the promenade, but also the center of social and natural functions. There naked babies played in the dunghills; their brothers and sisters chased dogs and mules; and their elders made love. In the narrowed passages an occasional clatter of hooves drowned out the muffled sounds of bare human feet. In the streets that were broad enough could be heard the rattling of carriage wheels, the lashing of whips, and the soft belching cry of the Neapolitan carter to his horse or, more probably, a very Vesuvius of curses, as rich and as colorful as the piles of melons and peppers on the street corners and as odiferous as the fish of the nearby market. Only slightly subdued at the hour of siesta, this racket gave place at night to guitars and strident Neapolitan voices raised in quarrel or in amorous lament.

The harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick began his splendid study of Domenico Scarlatti with this colourful description of the composer’s birthplace. One senses the American musicologist’s shock when faced with an environment surely less familiar to his eyes than to those of Ivo Pogorelich, who spent his childhood and other happy periods in ports such as Dubrovnik along the Croatian coast. Why place such importance on Naples, when the composer of the Essercizi per gravicembalo produced almost all his sonatas in Portugal and especially in Spain, while in the service of the Portuguese princess Maria Barbara (later queen of Spain by marriage)?

A composer’s childhood often provides clues as to his sources of inspiration. Domenico had long been living dutifully in the shadow of his father Alessandro. The death of the latter in 1725 seems to have released his creative energies and he was soon engaged in the composition of 555 sonatas. He married Caterina Gentili three years later. She bore him five children before passing away, and he had four more offspring by his second wife, Anastasia Ximenes.

His astounding vitality also found reflection in the colourful spontaneity of his musical material, to which a mature talent and an unerring compositional technique gave formal unity in works of extraordinary finish. They are noteworthy for their conciseness and variety, qualities which would later mark the mazurkas of Chopin. In both cases pieces of great simplicity, they paradoxically pose major problems for interpreters. While a wide range of music is accessible to the vast number of hard-working, conscientious pianists, Chopin’s mazurkas and the sonatas of Scarlatti seem reserved for an elite of players like Horowitz or Pogorelich, whose immense creativity and unprecedented rhythmical vitality draw on a transcendental precision of technique and evenness of tone to convey the necessary spontaneity without sleight of hand. Here, as with all popular music, hesitation, the intellectual’s fault, would be a mortal sin.

This is indeed popular music, since one’s response to it is primarily physical: the player’s fingers dance on the keyboard, while the listener has a physical perception of the importance of the strongly accented downbeats. The Sonata K. 1, for example, requires considerable agility if two keyboards are not available, and most of the sonatas feature spectacular crossing of hands and demand an elastic technique, both supple and powerful. almost unknown among harpsichordists of the period.

The sonatas are also popular in the way they continually borrow elements from the music of the common people. We can hear pifferi (shawms) with runs in thirds (K. 9), wind-instrument fanfares from a Spanish village (K. 20), flamenco instrumental ensembles striking their guitars percussively – where acciaccaturas or dissonant chords ring out briefly in a brusque sforzato attack – alternating with castanets (the admirable K. 119). We can hear zampogne (bagpipes) with sustained pedal notes (K. 8). or an ostinato repeated motif, where with each bar a note changes in the treble and the bass (K. 98). There are the calls of hunting-horns (K. 159), along with the excitement of a gallop (K. 380 and K. 450). jostling, acrobatics and fairground jugglers (K. 529): we hear church bells in the left hand with right-hand appoggiaturas on the downbeat, sounding like a Jewish (or Moorish) glottal stop (K. 487).

These pieces are popular, finally, because they are composed as if they were tapestries. The motifs are varied and leap out at the ear in striking relief; colours and atmospheres are contrasted with a richness of formal invention which even foreshadows the Classical sonata (K. 159). We encounter scintillating firework trills (K. 135) or sprightly, crackling repeated notes which one imagines played either on a mandolin (K. 20) or by percussion (K. 13). Scales and arpeggios appear (K. 11) in dynamic abundance: they are not used simply to fill out the texture, as happens with certain Classical pieces, but are carefully deployed, like the geometric lines and flourishes separating the main floral or animal motifs in a carpet. Scarlatti’s luminous, richly Italian harmonies recall the clear skies of a painting by Tiepolo; elsewhere, a candle-lit melancholy is conjured up by delicately shaded minor-key modulations (K. 87).

No one better than Ivo Pogorelich – in every sense a popular musician, both in his playing style and in the clamorous successes of his career – could be imagined as the interpreter of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas.

© Pierre Jasmin / Deutsche Grammophon