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Moving Pieces: D. Scarlatti & Vaughan Williams


When I heard in September that Musica Sacra was performing on March 10, I quickly put it on my calendar. After spending three years searching through Scarlatti’s keyboard music in search of sonatas that would work on the harp, there was no way I was going to miss this. Somehow I, and many other musicians I know, had never heard of this choral work. I am only sorry I didn’t drag my Scarlatti-loving friends to this concert at the First Church Congregational in Cambridge on March 10, because it received a ravishing performance.

I first heard Musica Sacra two years ago; it was my third reviewing assignment.  I raved about the excellent singers and its conductor.  Countless choral concerts later, I still think this choral group and Artistic Director Mary Beekman are among Boston’s very best.

Domenico Scarlatti, born in 1685, the same year as J.S. Bach and Handel, never really sounded like anyone else, especially in his keyboard works (over 550 sonatas). If most musicians heard Scarlatti’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa, they would be hard-pressed to identify the composer. It sounds nothing like the sonatas, and not like any other composer’s work. But one must remember that previous to the Sonata Years, Scarlatti was the Maestro de Cappella at the Vatican in Rome, in charge of the 16 to 18 singers making up the choir. He left this position in 1719 to work in the Portuguese Court in Lisbon, where his main duty was to teach the princess Maria Barbara. Here, Scarlatti had 40 singers to work with. His attachment to Maria Barbara led him to follow her to the Court of Spain, where he spent the last 25 years of his life composing the hundreds of sonatas for which he is known and loved.

As Mary Beekman points out in her excellent program notes, no one really knows when Scarlatti composed this Stabat Mater. “There is no record of a performance, nor is there an autograph of the manuscript.” A cataclysmic earthquake shook Lisbon in 1755, destroying, perhaps, the original manuscript. No one knows at what stage in his career Scarlatti wrote this amazing work, but Beekman surmises that he wrote it later in his life, “for its harmonic and melodic language has far more complexity than those of his Roman oeuvre.”

She explains that Scarlatti’s “musical grotesqueries” (tritones, “the devil in music,” flagrant violations of voice leading, etc.) mirror the deep emotional anguish of “the Christian onlooker to Christ’s suffering and Jesus’ physical torment as he hangs on the cross.” This was deeply moving music, accompanied beautifully by Douglas Freundlich on the theorbo. He mostly played single notes to great effect. The singers followed their music director perfectly, with admirable control of hairpin dynamics and intonation.  Despite the misery and anguish of the text, the singing was heavenly. This performance dramatically altered and enlarged my perception of a composer I thought I knew, and for that, I am most grateful.

The Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor that followed was, in a word, sublime. There were four excellent soloists from the chorus — soprano Lorraine Fryer, mezzo-soprano Sarah Matthews, tenor Ben Skerritt, and bass Chuck Alessi. The music was gorgeous and compelling. The two equal choruses of SATB were terrific, and the tenors and basses, for a change, got many chances to shine, and shine they did. Many of the chorus members had solo turns, and one could only marvel at how good each singer was. Textures kept changing; it was all quite magical. I kept thinking that if this chorus were British, they’d be a national treasure, and touring the globe. The church was mostly full, but if people knew how great this chorus was, they’d need a bigger space. To these ears, this Mass was one of the most moving pieces Vaughan Williams has composed. It has all of his good qualities — beautiful melodies, sumptuous harmonies, music that acts as a balm for one’s soul. I feel privileged to have heard this two works performed this magnificently. Bravo to Musica Sacra!

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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