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Domenico Scarlatti: Sonatas
Most of the 550 or so keyboard sonatas for which Domenico Scarlatti is universally remembered to-day are contained in two manuscript collections copied in Spain towards the end of the composer's life (mostly during the years 1752-57). These manuscripts were bequeathed by Scarlatti's pupil, Queen Maria Barbara, to his colleague, the famous castrato Farinelli, who took them with him when he returned to Italy in 1758. The queen's personal set of 15 volumes, sumptuously bound and tooled in gold with the royal coat-of-arms, was acquired by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice in 1835; the other set, also in 15 volumes and possibly copied for Farinelli himself, is now in the library of the Arrigo Boito Conservatorio in Parma.
The 14 sonatas recorded here are included in the last three volumes of the two principal sources. They therefore exemplify few of the more overt Hispanic touches and, with one notable exception (K.529), none of the extravagant, athletic leaps and hand-crossings which are well-known features of Scarlatti's keyboard style; such "happy freaks" (to borrow Burney's phrase) are confined almost exclusively to some of the earlier volumes. But they do show at its most mature the composer's idiosyncratic mastery of the binary structure which he adopted and developed as the almost invariable framework for the workings of his amazingly fertile imagination. The American scholar and harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick, was of the opinion that the dates found on the Venice and Parma volumes are mostly coincident with the composition dates of the works they contain. Certain recent findings have challenged this assertion, but it remains probable that the order in which the sonatas were copied does broadly reflect their order of composition. It was Kirkpatrick who first drew attention to the fact that most of the sonatas in the two main sources are distributed in pairs (and occasionally in threes) according to their tonality. Two questions arising from this have been much discussed in the Scarlatti literature. Was the "pair-wise arrangement" (as Kirkpatrick called it) part of the composer's original conception? And should it be observed in performance? We shall probably never know for certain the answer to the first of these questions unless the missing autographs somehow turn up in large numbers (at present not a single sonata is known to exist in Scarlatti's hand). Except in a very few instances (one of which is noted below) there are no significant thematic connections to be found between the two sonatas of a pair, and each sonata is given a separate number in the sources. Nevertheless, Scarlatti must surely have supervised the copying of the Venice and Parma volumes and approved the arrangement in pairs as part of the process of bringing the works to their final form.
As far as performance is concerned, there is ample evidence to show that whoever was responsible for grouping the sonatas did so with a clear understanding of which pieces would go well together. In some cases the intention that two sonatas should be performed as a pair is made explicit by the scribe (see, for example, the note on K. 516 and K.517 below); in many others it is implicit in the nature of the pairing, especially in the numerous instances where an alia breve Allegro or Andante is followed by a lively 3/8 or 3/4 movement, often in dance style. There is much to be said for retaining these couplings in performance; and this practice is followed in the present recording. On the other hand, Scarlatti himself was in no position to dictate to his royal pupil the order in which she should play the sonatas he had composed for her, and the modern recitalist is entitled to disregard the original pairing if he so wishes. After all, we play and listen to Scarlatti's sonatas above all for their myriad delights, their wit, freshness and originality, and their inexhaustible invention; these qualities are there to be enjoyed and marvelled at no matter in what order the sonatas are heard.
K. 460 and K. 461 in C major exemplify the "classic" pairing of an alla breve Allegro and a light, witty 3/8 movement (another Allegro). K.460 is an unusually extended movement, with some characteristically abrupt key changes and quite purposeful development. Its companion is notable for the use (rare in Scarlatti) of the so-called "Alberti bass" - the broken-chord figuration in the left hand of the minor-key passage at the beginning of the second section. K.502 in C major is the second sonata of a pair, and one of the relatively few very late pieces in which the influence of Spanish folk music is clearly felt. The second section, especially, with its obsessively repeated rhythmic motifs and its alternations of 3/8 and 2/4 metres, has an unmistakably Andalusian flavour.
K. 516 and K. 517 in D minor constitute one of the few instances in which it is possible to recognize a deliberate thematic connection between the two sonatas of a pair, the opening of K.517 being a scalic version of the arpeggio figure at the beginning of K. 516. It is interesting, too, that in the Parma source, where the order of these sonatas is reversed to form the "classic" pairing referred to above, the scribe has appended a note to make it clear that K.516 should precede K.517. K. 478 and K. 479 in D major are both sonatas of ample proportions with well-defined "second subjects", in each case introduced by a silent bar. In K.478 this is a rather galant melody in the dominant minor (recapitulated in the tonic minor with new tonal excursions); in K.479 it provides the occasion for the kind of abrupt switches of key that we come to expect of Scarlatti.
K. 518 and K. 519 in F major/minor are both full of local colour. In K. 518 the progress of the music is twice halted by a measured passage in A major, suggesting perhaps the sudden entrance of a procession into the busy square of some Spanish town. K. 519 is a dance which, like many traditional Spanish dances, begins in the minor and ends zestfully in the major. K. 546 and K. 547 in G minor/major extend the same modal juxtaposition, with still greater subtlety, to a pair of sonatas. The first begins and ends in G minor, while its companion in G major recapitulates its "second subject" in the tonic minor before regaining the major in a codetta similar to that of K. 545.
K. 544 and K. 545 in B flat major form an entirely different kind of pair, however. The first sonata is a concise piece, constructed almost entirely from the material of its first two bars. In the second the opening motif is almost immediately forgotten as the music proceeds mercurially from one arresting idea to another, finding cohesion in its pervasive syncopations and stability in a codetta formula which recalls that of K. 547.
K.529 in B flat major is the second of a pair of sonatas which stand apart from their neighbours by virtue of their acrobatic hand-crossings, involving leaps of up to four octaves from one quaver to the next. If the position of this sonata in the final volumes of the Parma and Venice manuscripts is any indication of when it was composed, then it would seem that Scarlatti's delight in "happy freaks" never left him.