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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 - 1757): "Sonatas for viola d'amore and harpsichord"

Valerio Losito, viola d'amorea; Andrea Coen, harpsichord

rec: Feb 1 - 4, 2011, Rome, Santa Maria in Vallicella (Refettorio del Borromini, Sala Ovale)
Brilliant Classics - 94242 (© 2011) (59'35")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Sonata in c minor (K 73)a; Sonata in d minor (K 77); Sonata in F (K 78)a; Sonata in G (K 79); Sonata in G (K 80)a; Sonata in d minor (K 88)a; Sonata in d minor (K 89)a; Sonata in d minor (K 90)a; Sonata in G (K 91)

Domenico Scarlatti is almost exclusively associated with sonatas for keyboard. The catalogue which was put together by Ralph Kirkpatrick lists 555 of them. A number of uncatalogued sonatas can be added to these. There is general agreement that some of the sonatas were in fact intended for a melody instrument, with the lower parts reflecting the basso continuo practice of the time. These sonatas are mostly played on the violin; a performance on the viola d'amore is uncommon.

The choice of this particular instrument is based on historical and musical arguments. In their liner-notes Valerio Losito and Andrea Coen refer to the presence of two viola d'amore players at the Spanish court at the time Scarlatti worked there. One of them was a professional: Joseph de Herrando (1721-1763), the most prominent violinist in Spain in the 18th century. He composed a series of six sonatinas for the 5-string violin, a higher variant of the viola d'amore. These were dedicated to Farinelli, the famous castrato who after his singing career had settled in Madrid and liked to spend his time playing the viola d'amore. (These sonatinas have been recorded by Marianne Rônez; Cavalli Records, 2004. Her liner-notes give much information about the various kinds of viola d'amore known in the 18th century.)

The artists believe that the Sonatas K 89 and 90 could have been written for the viola d'amore, "because they contain idiomatic passages and make it possible to use the instrument's characteristic fingering". They admit that these sonatas can also be played on other instruments, and that is also the case with the Sonatas K 77 and 91. The only sonata which they think was exclusively written for the viola d'amore is K 88. The texture of the sonata makes it less suitable for the violin or for the harpsichord as a solo instrument. Their arguments seem convincing, at least to me, not having technical knowledge about the instrument. Then again, the use of the key of D minor raises questions as the original key is G minor. Using the original key "would force the viola d'amore into an unnaturally high register, making it sound forced". Therefore the sonata is transposed down a fourth. I wonder why Valerio Losito didn't use the kind of instrument which Marianne Rônez plays in her recording of Herrando's Sonatinas. The Violino di V corde, as Herrando called it, would have allowed him to play Scarlatti's sonata in the original key. As far as the other sonatas are concerned, Losito and Coen believe K 73 could also have been conceived as a piece for viola d'amore, whereas the others can be played on it.

I am not in the position to assess the musicological arguments on which these interpretations are based. The artists have laid down their views in more detail in a contribution to the book Domenico Scarlatti Adventures, Essays to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his death (2008). What we get here is an intriguing and musically challenging view on some of Scarlatti's sonatas. The artists conduct their case in a most persuasive way, delivering eloquent and captivating performances of the nine sonatas. Many of Scarlatti's sonatas are usually played in pairs of the same key, but as most of those on this disc are in two, three or four movements, they are played independently. Exceptions are the single-movement Sonatas K 79 and 80, which are treated as a pair, with K 79 performed as a harpsichord solo.

The tempi are mostly rather moderate, and it seems the performers have added some improvisatory elements. In the grave of the Sonata K 89, for instance, Valerio Losito plays a kind of cadenza, and some movements are introduced by a short episode on the harpsichord. It is a token of the creativity with which the interpreters have treated the repertoire.

The title of this disc is a little too pretentious, as one will understand after reading my description of what is on offer here. These are not 'sonatas for viola d'amore and harpsichord', but rather sonatas which could be played on the viola d'amore. I am also not quite satisfied with the recording. There is a bit too much reverberation, and the balance between the two instruments is less than ideal. The harpsichord is too much in the background, and the recording as a whole could have been given more presence.

Even so, I recommend this disc in particular to lovers of Scarlatti's music. They will certainly be interested in these 'alternative' readings of sonatas they may know pretty well. Considering the fact that music for viola d'amore isn't that often recorded, this disc is also a worthwhile addition to the catalogue of recordings with this instrument.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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Andrea Coen

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