SCARLATTI: Disperato Amore

Alessandro Scarlatti: Disperato Amore
Matthew White (Countertenor) with Les Voix Baroques
Analekta AN 2 9904 [CD]

Alessandro Scarlatti, a contemporary of Handel and father of Domenico Scarlatti, was a prolific composer of cantatas, oratorios, and operas. He wrote more than 60 operas and 600 cantatas. Contemporaries frequently distinguished between styles according to the locale in which they might have been performed or to which they were appropriate: the church, chamber, and theatrical styles. The cantata was considered a genre of the chamber style and offered listeners refined counterpoint and delicate changes in dynamics; cantatas of the period generally set pastoral or love texts and employed recitative alternating with arias. Many of Scarlatti’s cantatas were written for performances at aristocratic residences; most survive in manuscript form and were never published.
This recording presents a selection of solo cantatas, one solo motet, and two instrumental sonatas from Scarlatti’s last years in Naples. It features renowned countertenor Matthew White and Les Voix Baroques, an early music chamber ensemble based in Montreal. White has performed with, among others, Glyndebourne Opera, New York City Opera, Opera Atelier, and Houston Grand Opera in countertenor roles, as well as at many early music festivals. He brings his considerable knowledge of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music and performance practice to this recording.
White sings with clarity and elegance, beautifully interpreting the cantatas and motet. Each cantata on this recording employs a standardized formal pattern typical of the time: two da capo arias interspersed between recitatives. These vocal works provide moving examples of Scarlatti’s contrapuntal expertise and expressive writing. The first two cantatas, Ombre tacite e sole and Bella quanto crudel spietata Irene, set love texts, while the last, Non so qual piu m’ingombra, sets a text concerning the coming of the Messiah. The instrumentation is a point of interest: Bella quanto crudel is a more typical cantata for continuo and voice alone, while the remaining two cantatas call for violins and viola in addition to the continuo, giving rise to vivid instrumental writing. These additional instrumental forces bring great narrative depiction to the cantatas, such as in the first aria in Non so qual piu m’ingombra, “Non sarà?” which features independent violin motives in dialogue with the voice; their meandering “comments” depict the confusion of the protagonist at his unexplained joy.
The Latin motet, Infirmata, vulnerata, depicts the protagonist’s difficult encounter with divine love; it adopts a vocal style typical of the secular cantata. The tentative but deliberate opening aria of the motet, concerned with a languishing soul that is weak and wounded, is written in evocative counterpoint in a low register, suited to the topic of the text.
Throughout the recording, the recitatives are often dramatic in their use of instruments, chromaticism and dynamic shadings, to which White and the ensemble draw our attention; listen, for example, to the opening of Non so qual piu m’ingombra, which begins with an upbeat instrumental introduction depicting the joy of the Messiah — a narrative event not revealed textually until the second recitative — the depiction of “serene air” through the echoing of the voice in the strings, and an undulating string motive depicting “murmuring waves.” Equally pictorial is the opening of Ombre tacite, which additionally employs chromaticism to convey the loneliness and horror described in the text.
The instrumental sonatas, given attractive and vivacious performance on original instruments, offer a nice contrast to the vocal selections. While the composer was best known in his lifetime for his vocal music, in his last years he turned more attention to instrumental music, from which these sonatas emanate. Scarlatti wrote these two sonatas for flute, violins, and continuo, and they are here performed with recorder and oboe, respectively. Each sonata contains a series of contrasting movements, and each captures Scarlatti’s prowess at contrapuntal writing, particularly in the fugal movement within each sonata.
One minor concern about this recording is the accompanying booklet. The tempo markings of the arias are nowhere indicated despite the importance of the markings for both the composer and audience (a fact to which the liner notes draw our attention, in fact, by quoting the composer on this subject.) The composer, and contemporaries of his day, used tempo markings to indicate the affect, character, passion, and so on of individual arias and are therefore integral to the pieces. Secondly, the original Italian poetry is not usually presented in poetic form; instead, probably to save space, all lines are put in paragraph form, thus at times concealing the form and rhyme schemes. However, this is a high quality recording with beautiful performances of the musical selections.
Dr. Mary Macklem
University of Central Florida