Le sonate di Domenico Scarlatti. Testo, contesto, interpretazione

by Enrico Baiano & Marco Moiraghi
Repertori Musicali 5.
LIM 2014. 321pp
ISBN 978 88 7096 7722 €30

There is a lot to be gleaned from the research, experience, analysis, synthesis and dedication that went into this joint effort. The chapters by each author (both musicians as well as musicologists, Baiano a harpsichordist and fortepianist, Moiraghi a pianist and composer) are complementary, their agenda is one: to bring the sonatas of Scarlatti and their interpretation into focus in the light of older Italian and Iberian traditions, influences, the composer’s personal upbringing and circumstances, and centuries of dispute over styles of execution. I say ‘agenda’ because the ‘theme’ of the book is to stress the necessity of what some will consider a wildly distorting subjective attitude toward tempo changes, ornamentation, and even form.

The first half of the book is succinctly philological, developing fascinating implications for categorizing the sonatas in new ways. I remember once reading a record jacket in which Landowska described a piece as showing lovers sitting under a moonlit sky, with specific details I don’t remember! So it wouldn’t have surprised her to read a ‘plausible’ plot synopsis of an imaginary opera, offered as an example of how a Scarlatti sonata may seem to bring characters onto the stage, to produce a succession of situations, and to come to a theatrical conclusion. I was more puzzled by the relevance of the early Toccata genre (which despite its rhetorical gestures was a contrapuntally conceived composition ingeniously ornamented with passage-work) said to permeate Scarlatti’s language in some sonatas. Extremely illuminating is the reflection of Andalusian folk music in Scarlatti’s music. The history, harmonies, forms, and purpose of specific songs and dances are discussed, with short musical examples (in the sonatas, not from the folk music itself).

This major influence is really only outlined, and serious readers can use the notes and bibliographical leads to explore it further. For Baiano and Moiraghi’s ‘agenda’ all these relationships are crucial and underappreciated. Opera and free keyboard genres, full of lyricism and dramatic contrasts, dependent on conventional understanding of tempos, time signatures, cadences and tonalities, are part of every player’s experience. Less familiar to most of us is the passionate precursor of the flamenco, the canto hondo (transcribed ‘jondo’), with its distinctively oriental melodic twists, semitones, augmented seconds, and particular forms of accompaniment. Originally these songs were monodic and not subject to regular rhythmic controls. They became strophic, with variations comprising danced episodes (the dancer wearing noisy percussive shoes to make accelerations and full stops heard), instrumental solos (guitar, castanets) exploiting dramatically colorful new strumming techniques, the singing punctuated by shouts, pauses, laments (quejíos) and above all following a formal sequence: salida (introduction), tercio de entrada (singer’s entrance), tercio grande (most intensely emotional section), tercio de alivio (literally ‘relief’), cambio (varied recapitulation), and sometimes a brilliant final tercio de valiente (literally ‘virtuoso’). According to the authors, Scarlatti wrote some sonatas as jondos for the harpsichord.

In the 1500s and 1600s, slaves and commerce from Africa and nearby islands introduced dances such as fandangos, zarabandas and chaconas, along with their rhythms and melodies, into the Iberian peninsula, as well as into the Americas, and from there back to Spain and Portugal. The descending tetrachord and Phrygian flavour of the passacaglia are typical. Such elements may be heard in Scarlatti’s writing (and indeed in a great deal of Baroque music).

For these ideas, alluded to repeatedly in later sections in discussing specific sonatas and comparing interpreters, I am extremely grateful to these authors, and to Emilia Fadini, who has instilled the implications of this tradition throughout her long teaching career, and has long suffered the unimaginative approach of many proficient and worthy performers! Hers is the best Scarlatti edition to date, with eight of a total of ten volumes available.1

I have two complaints, however, about this book. If ever a book needed an index of works, this one does. Some chapter headings list the sonatas to be analyzed in detail, but not the many other Kirkpatrick numbers mentioned in passing, singly and together, often usefully. I would strongly urge players to make a personal index while reading the book. Better still: could LIM or the authors make an index available online or on www.lim.it?

The second is more serious. I was not always convinced by the insistence on contrasts, accelerations, stunning pauses, or tempos varying from half to double their established speed. I think there has to be an extremely cogent reason for not seeking a tempo in which the piece itself, perhaps excluding introductory passages and codas, more or less as written, produces very striking effects. Yes, Scarlatti may be so potentially ‘programmatic’ that he tempts us to indulge, but should tables comparing the metronomic fluctuations not only between but within sections of a sonata, as recorded by a dozen players, be taken as the yardstick measuring the aesthetic value of their performances?

An enlarged edition of Roberto Pagano’s highly praised Alessandro e Domenico Scarlatti. Due vite in una (LIM) will be out soon.

Barbara Sachs

  1. For those still eagerly waiting for the two final volumes of Fadini’s ‘new’ complete edition of Scarlatti’s sonatas (begun in 1978), they will soon be available, thanks to her collaboration with Marco Moiraghi. Casa Ricordi no longer exists, but the edition is handled by Universal and their partner Hal Leonard. Click here for further information, or email sales@mgbhalleonard.com.