musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 - 1757): Cantatas

Max Emanuel Cencic, altoa; Maya Amrein, cellob; Yasunori Imamura, theorboc, guitard; Aline Zylberajch, fortepianoe

rec: Sept 2004, June 2005, Cologne, Studio Deutschlandfunk
Capriccio 67 173 (© 2006) (68'24" + DVD: 62')

Con qual cor mi chiedi pace?, cantata for voice and bcabce; Fille, già più non parlo, cantata for voice and bcabde; Qual pensier, quale ardire; cantata for voice and bcabcde; No, non fuggire, cantata for voice and bcabcde; Sonata for harpsichord in d minor (K 77)e; Sonata for harpsichord in E (K 215)e; Sonata for harpsichord in D (K 277)e; Ti ricorda, o bella Irene, cantata for voice and bcabce

Domenico Scarlatti is almost exclusively associated with his around 600 sonatas for keyboard. But, as most composers of his time, he also contributed to other genres, like music for instrumental ensemble and vocal music. In the early stages of his career, when he was still in Italy, he composed several operas. As there was a close connection between the opera and the chamber cantata it doesn't come as a surprise that his output contains several specimen of the latter genre, which was extremely popular throughout the whole of Europe. It has taken some time until Domenico's cantatas were appreciated. Indicative of the rather negative view of these works is the judgement of the prominent Scarlatti expert Ralph Kirkpatrick, who described Domenico's vocal style as "so lacking in individuality that I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the following works". The lack of appreciation seems to be caused to a large extent by a misunderstanding in regard to their time of composition. It was thought most cantatas were written early in Scarlatti's life in Italy. But now it is assumed many of them were written in Spain in the 1740's. This means they reflect the stylistic development in the middle of the 18th century.

The cantatas recorded here are also assumed being written at that time, probably for the soprano castrato Farinelli, born as Carlo Broschi in 1705. After a very successful career as an opera singer he decided to go to Madrid at the request of the Spanish queen who hoped his singing would help her husband, King Philip V, to overcome his depressions. His close friendship with the king got him involved into diplomatic activities. When the king died in 1746 he became director of a theatre, and he gradually withdrew from performing in public as a singer. Farinelli was well past his prime, and that could be the reason Scarlatti mostly shuns too much virtuosity.

But there is also a stylistic reason for this. During the 1740s there was a growing demand for a 'natural' style of composing. In theatrical music this meant that characters should be portrayed in a more natural way, reflecting their different moods according to the situation. And this also meant the end of the baroque principle of 'unity of affections'. In the cantatas recorded here Scarlatti pays tribute to this new ideal of 'naturalness' through contrasting affections within arias.

It is only natural to look for similarities between them and the sonatas for keyboard. There seem not to be too many of them: the cantatas don't show the extravagance of so many sonatas. This can partly be explained by the fact that Scarlatti wrote his sonatas for his own use, and many may originate in improvisations. A cantata written out to be performed by someone else is a wholly different thing. Even so there are similarities, even in those arias which seem predominantly lyrical in character. Not all Scarlatti's sonatas are fast, virtuosic and exuberant. The slower arias in the cantatas on this disc are comparable to sonatas with tempo indications like 'andante' or 'cantabile'. And to a certain extent the more exuberant sonatas are recognizable in the faster and more virtuosic arias. Here we find some large leaps in the solo part as well as some strikingly sharp rhythms.

All cantatas on this disc are written for soprano. This was common in the 18th century, although it goes too far to conclude from this they were always sung by sopranos. It wasn't unusual to transpose cantatas for a performance by a lower voice. I don't know whether the cantatas on this disc have been transposed. It is possible that they are not, considering the rather low pitch in this recording (a=411') and the singer's tessitura. Cencic has a well-developed high register: he describes his voice as mezzo soprano.

He started his career as a male soprano. Years ago I heard him live in this capacity, and it was pretty awful. This was probably the time he was close to the artistic and personal crisis he very frankly talks about in the documentary on the DVD which accompanies this disc. After staying away from singing for some time he made a comeback and decided to sing as a male alto. That was a wise decision, as he sounds much more comfortable here. One also can hear the text, which was not the case when he sang as a male soprano. Not that I am really pleased by his voice. His high register is strong, but also a little shrill. In the middle and lower register his voice is much more pleasant. What I find most problematic is his continuous, pretty large vibrato. It is not only tiresome, but also questionable from a historical point of view. Otherwise there is nothing wrong with his interpretation. He prefers singing in the theatre, and that is reflected in his performances of these cantatas.

One aspect of this interpretation is the use of a fortepiano both in the basso continuo and in sonatas which intersperse the programme. It is a copy of a very early specimen of the fortepiano, according to the booklet "made in Bartolomeo Cristofori's workshop and signed Giovanni Ferrini 1730". Scarlatti once ordered a fortepiano for the Spanish court. "The comparatively soft but dynamically variable tone of this immensely "modern" and "sensitive" instrument is eminently suited to intimate chamber music and above all to accompanying the voice", according to Karsten Erik Ose in the booklet. That may be true, but in this case I am often disappointed by the result. In the more introverted arias it works rather well, but in the more dramatic arias and recitatives it lacks profile and the ability to give rhythmic support. In the last aria of the second cantata, Filli, già più non parlo, the fortepiano is clearly overpowered by the guitar. It is no coincidence many conductors prefer a harpsichord for the accompaniment of the singers even in operas and oratorios of the late 18th century.

To sum up: this disc offers an interesting programme of hardly-known repertoire which is the reason I recommend it. But those who can't stand a continuous vibrato are well advised to stay away from it. The DVD is interesting, because of some early recordings by Cencic as a treble – for five years he was a member of the Wiener Sängerknaben – and because of the frankness and honesty of Cencic, who seems to be a very sensitive and modest character. It is in German, with subtitles in English, not always very precise, but good enough to understand what Cencic means.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Max Emanuel Cencic

CD Reviews