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New Naxos Recording of Domenico Scarlatti’s Keyboard Sonatas

November 10, 2010

Between 8–10 July 2010 in Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, Chinese pianist Duanduan Hao recorded Keyboard Sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti for release on Naxos 8.572586.

Basic feelings about Scarlatti Sonatas
The time that Scarlatti lived in was a period when musical culture was in transition. The music during this period gradually abandoned the rigid lengthy Baroque style and aimed to express more personal feelings. Scarlatti’s music, with its innovative keyboard techniques and references to the spirit of popular music, was influenced by music from Italy, Spain, Poland, Portugal and other European countries. To achieve the purposes of teaching, he made each sonata similar to an etude [he called them ‘Essercizi’ or ‘Exercises’ – Ed]. Through playing them, problems of technique and musical interpretation could be mastered by players.

Scarlatti and the Rococo Style
During the 18th-century Rococo period, the Baroque style began to change, leading to the new Classical style. While absorbing and summing up Baroque achievements and innovations, Scarlatti’s delicate and elegant, highly decorative music imbued Baroque polyphony with the idyllic and singing style of the Rococo. These works are full of elegant, brilliant, lively, gorgeous, graceful taste, with an aristocratic air.

The Form of Scarlatti’s Sonatas
Baroque instrumental music [such as the dances in a Suite or Scarlatti’s sonatas – Ed] was often based on a two-part (binary) structure, in which each of the two parts is repeated. [This may be represented by AAA’A’, where A represents the repeated first part and A’ represents the repeated closely-related second part. The first part usually moves from the tonic key to a related key, and the second part usually moves from the related key back to the original tonic key.] Typically, a work written in Classical sonata form is in three parts—the exposition, the development and the recapitulation. [In the exposition the musical material is first presented and moves from the tonic key to a related key, then it is varied in the development section and moves through further related keys before the original musical material returns in the recapitulation, this time also returning to the original tonic key. This may be represented as A for the exposition, B for the development and A’ for the recapitulation, or ABA’ in summary. Often the exposition is repeated, giving an AABA’ structure.] The contrast between these three parts and the unfolding of a musical story [principally in terms of the harmonic structure but also involving the elaboration of the melodic material] are important principles of Classical sonata form.

In contrast, Scarlatti’s sonatas are short single-movement works, almost all in binary AAA’A’ form. Scarlatti’s works became known as ‘Sonatas’ [from the standard Italian term describing music which was sounded by instruments rather than sung] and they sometimes approach the basic structure of Classical sonata form. But Scarlatti was a free-spirited character who, unwilling to be bound by formal rules, was more liberal in terms of the musical forms he used. [Indeed, it was not until several decades later that musical theorists began to analyse musical form in the ways described above].

Scarlatti’s Sonatas and Keyboard Technique
Scarlatti was a pioneering and innovative spirit of keyboard playing, with a superb technique full of imaginative creation. Considered as ‘Etudes’, Scarlatti’s Sonatas make for creative teaching. Bold use of Spanish popular musical styles—fast, strong, bold rhythms, full of the spirit of dance—and the new playing techniques he developed laid the foundation of modern piano technique. The development of the modern piano had a very profound impact. [Scarlatti seems to have composed different Sonatas with different instruments in mind. Harpsichord, clavichord, fortepiano, even organ, have been suggested as most suitable for various of his Sonatas by musicologists and modern performers.] 300 years ago, the harpsichord could manage only very limited contrasts in terms of volume, changes in tone and voice control compared with the modern piano. But Scarlatti overcame these limitations and exploited the rich though unvarying sound of the harpsichord and slim but more expressive character of the fortepiano. He frequently used long-distance leaps in rapid succession, continuous broken chords, cross-rhythms and repeated notes which require great skill from both hands of the player and which sometimes resemble the virtuoso effects later widely used during the Romantic period. Scarlatti also took great care in composing his Sonatas – there are sometimes scratch-outs in the manuscripts of his harpsichord sonatas.

After much research, I found, that Scarlatti rarely use ornaments, but very characteristically he likes to use a fast vibrato and tremolo, together with chords. Although these works are written for harpsichord, they are suitable for performance on the modern piano. In playing these Sonatas, one must attentively seek a bright, clear and brilliant sound. The clavichord’s light tone requires lightweight and agile finger movements, with particular attention to the way light and dark tones need to be played with clear contrast. In the playing, one must be sure to maintain a steady rhythm, generally avoiding acceleration or deceleration, even to finish. In addition, careful use must be made of the pedal. When playing Scarlatti the clear, transparent sound must not become blurred.

The sound of the concert hall in which we did the recording is very good. The piano was regularly tuned and well maintained. And cooperation with the production manager was very good. Thanks to all of these factors, the three days of recording went very smoothly. We even finished this recording project half-a-day early!

This is an edited version of notes originally provided in Chinese by pianist Duanduan Hao


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