musica Dei donum

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Domenico SCARLATTI (1685 - 1757): "Sacred Vocal Music"

Immortal Bach Ensemble; Lars Baunkilde, violone; Michael Dücker, theorbo; Leif Meyer, organ
Dir: Morten Schuldt-Jensen

rec: September 18 - 21cde & October 11 - 12ab, Leipzig, Bethanienkirchecde, Paul-Gerhardt-Kircheab
Naxos - 8.570382 (© 2007) (64'06")

Cibavit nos Dominusa; Magnificatb; Missa breve 'La stella'c; Stabat materd; Te Deume

Domenico Scarlatti is almost exclusively associated with the genre of the sonata for keyboard of which he wrote a large number and which belong to the standard repertoire of harpsichordists and pianists of our time. His sacred vocal music is almost completely ignored, with one exception: the 10-part Stabat mater, which is regularly performed and recorded and which is also part of this disc. But Scarlatti had several positions in which the writing of sacred music was expected before he lived and worked at the royal Spanish court in Madrid, where he wrote most of his keyboard works.

In 1713 he was appointed assistent to the maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia at St Peter's, Tommaso Baj. That same year Baj died, and Scarlatti was appointed as his successor. Several of his sacred works are part of the archive of the Cappella Giulia. These are not the earliest surviving sacred works by Domenico. In 1707 his father Alessandro had taken over the direction of music in the basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, and the participation of Domenico in the services is established for at least two occasions. Apparently he also composed music for the liturgy in the basilica, as the archive shows. Two of the works in the programme of this disc have been preserved in the basilica's archive: the Missa breve La stella and the motet Cibavit nos Dominus.

In general it is difficult to date the sacred works of Domenico Scarlatti. Even the writers of the programme notes differ in the case of the Magnificat as to which period in Scarlatti's life it was composed. Keith Anderson, who wrote the English notes, suggests it dates from the period Domenico worked at the Cappella Giulia. But in the German programme notes Dorothea Craxton writes the Magnificat and the Te Deum both were written when he was already in Lisbon, working at the royal court as maestro di cappella. That is certainly a possibility as his first duty in this position was to write sacred music. Putting a date on the Stabat mater is also difficult. Considering the technical requirements of this piece it must have been written for a highly-skilled group of singers which suggests either the Cappella Giulia or the choir Domenico had at his disposal in Lisbon. The latter seems to me most likely: why should Domenico compose such a piece for the Cappella Giulia when it was only in 1727 - when he was in Lisbon - that the Roman Catholic Church accepted the Stabat mater into the Roman Missal?

Scarlatti's sacred works contain strong influences of the stile antico, the polyphony of the renaissance of which Palestrina was seen as the main representative. The motet Cibavit nos Dominus and the Magnificat are strictly written in the stile antico, whereas the Missa breve and the Te Deum contain a mixture of the old style and the concertato style which was common in Scarlatti's time. The Te Deum is written for two four-part choirs with basso continuo. The two choirs are used antiphonally, also a practice of old times. Scarlatti uses shifts in tempo to single out some verses, like the 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus' and also the passage on the Holy Trinity (Patrae immensae majestatis): "the Father of an infinite majesty; thine honourable, true and only Son; also the Holy Ghost the Comforter". At the end the words "non confundar in aeternam" (let me never be confounded) are repeated in slow tempo, with the word "non" singled out through being followed by a general pause.

The Missa breve is also scored for two four-part choirs with basso continuo, but here contrasts are realised by the opposition of soli and tutti. Here we find elements of the modern concertato style, in particular in the Gloria. The Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei are written in the stile antico again. There is no Benedictus, which was quite common, as it was either sung in plainchant or replaced by a motet. The latter is the case here: Cibavit nos Dominus is sung as Elevation motet between Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Dorothea Craxton suggests it could have been originally performed during this particular mass. It is for four voices and sung a cappella. But the manuscript contains an empty stave at the bottom suggesting the performers should add a basso continuo part of their own. I had wished the performers here had done so, as it had created a greater stylistic unity between Mass and motet.

The longest piece is the Stabat mater, which is set for 10 voices - all strictly independent - and basso continuo. Although this work is rooted in the stile antico Domenico Scarlatti deals with this style in his very own way. Any objectivity - which one associates with the old polyphonic style - is far away: Scarlatti has paid much attention to the text. Time and again one or the other voice gets the opportunity to communicate the text with intensity and fervour. When a passage is repeated the internal distribution of the voices is mostly changed, which creates the necessary differentiation.

Unfortunately the performance on this disc only hints at these features. There is nothing wrong with the singing of the vocal ensemble: it consists of very skilled singers with nice voices, which blend well and at the same time have the qualities to sing solo passages. But the expression of the text is hardly explored, and there is too little passion in this performance. One of the reasons is the speed which is pretty high. I have heard performances which took about 30 minutes without giving the impression of being really slow. After listening to this recording I have turned to the performance by Concerto Italiano, directed by Rinaldo Alessandrini. He needs a little more than 25 minutes, and the main difference in tempo is in the first three sections. It is here where Alessandrini allows his singers to really explore the dissonances and the affections of this work to the bottom. In comparison the Immortal Bach Ensemble goes hardly below the surface. Within these three sections there are much stronger contrasts in tempi in Alessandrini's performance than here. In short, the Italians are much more dramatic and theatrical, showing that Scarlatti, despite returning to the past as it were, still is a composer of the baroque era.

From this perspective I think it is a shame the Stabat mater is part of this recording. There are several recordings available, and other sacred works of Domenico Scarlatti are still waiting to be recorded. It is all the more disappointing as the other works on this disc are given fine performances. In particular the Te Deum and the Missa breve are very well sung. As these works are well worth listening to I still recommend this disc.

As usual the lyrics and translations have to be downloaded from the Naxos website.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

Relevant links:

Immortal Bach Ensemble

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