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Scarlatti family: "Alessandro, Francesco e Domenico - Polyphonic Music of the Scarlatti Family"

Ex Tempore
Dir: Florian Heyerick
rec: September 2005, Ghent, Sound Recording Studio Steurbaut
Et'cetera - KTC 1298 ( 2005) (70'46")

Alessandro SCARLATTI (1660-1725): Salve Regina, op. 2,10 [1]; Domenico SCARLATTI (1685-1757): Magnificat anima mea; Missa quatuor vocum (Missa di Madrid); Francesco SCARLATTI (1666-after 1741): Miserere mei, Deus

(Sources: [1] A Scarlatti, Concerti Sacri op. 2, 1708)

The Scarlatti family is one of the many musical dynasties in music history. Only two of its members are still well-known today: Alessandro and his son Domenico. Alessandro was born in Palermo as the second son of Pietro Scarlata (as the original family name was), who was active as a tenor. During his career Alessandro lived and worked in several cities, like Rome, Naples and Venice. At a young age he was already a famous and much sought-after composer. His younger brother Francesco almost forgotten today - was less lucky. He was appointed as violinist at the royal court in Napels in 1684, but returned to Palermo in 1691, and stayed there for about 24 years. He tried to find appointments at the courts of Vienna and Naples, but failed. In 1719 he travelled to London, where he participated in public concerts. In 1733 he went to Dublin, where he seems to have died in 1741 or soon after. Domenico also wasn't very happy for some time: only after the death of his father he felt really free to follow his own path, although he had left Italy five years earlier, in 1720.

This disc pays attention to a part of the oeuvre of the Scarlatti family which is not very often performed and recorded. As the title of this disc indicates its subject is the way these three Scarlatti's dealt with polyphony. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) stated that polyphony, and in particular polyphony as applied by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, was the best way to implement the liturgical ideals of the Church. But at the beginning of the 17th century the musical aesthetics fundamentally changed: the text was put into the centre, and the music was supposed to express the affetti of the text. But polyphony continued to play an important role in the style of composing during the 17th and 18th centuries, in Italy and elsewhere. There were two ways of using polyphony, and both can be heard on this disc.

In most cases the polyphony is enriched by the declamatory style and the harmonic freedoms of the stile nuovo. Domenico Scarlatti composed a number of works in this 'mixed' style, like his 10-part Stabat mater and the setting of the Magnificat which is recorded here. Examples of text expression are the staccato on "dispersit superbos" (scattered the proud) and the ascending figure on "exaltavit" (exalted). Domenico's uncle Francesco goes much further in his setting of Miserere mei, Deus (Psalm 50/51). The first two verses are full of dissonances, and in the 18th verse strong dissonances are used again on the words "contribulatus" (broken [spirit]) and "contritum" (contrite [heart]). Francesco demonstrates his contrapuntal skills in the doxology, where he writes a double fugue in 8 parts on the passage "et in saecula saeculorum". Alessandro Scarlatti's setting of the Salve Regina was published in a collection of sacred pieces, printed in Amsterdam in 1707/8. Alessandro doesn't miss the opportunities to translate textual passages into music.

But in the 17th and 18th centuries some music was still written in the old-fashioned polyphonic style, the stile antico. Alessandro Scarlatti referred to his compositions in this style as written "alla Palestrina". On this disc the Mass by his son Domenico represents this style. It is written for four voices and bc, and as it was found in an archive in Madrid it is nicknamed Missa di Madrid. From this one may conclude that it was written during his time in Spain. There is hardly any connection between text and music, except some madrigalisms here and there, and the use of harmony is conservative.

The ensemble Ex Tempore is giving fine performances here. The fact that some pieces are written in the stile antico of the 16th century doesn't mean they should be performed as renaissance music. Fortunately Florian Heyerick is well aware of this, which is reflected in a more declamatory style of singing and more dynamic contrasts than would be appropriate in real 16th-century music. The Miserere by Francesco Scarlatti contains a number of solo sections which are sung by members of the ensemble, and they do so very well.

To sum up: this is a most interesting and capivating recording of relatively little-known, but first-rate music.

Johan van Veen ( 2008)

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