Rafael Puyana on the interpretation of Domenico Scarlatti

Rafael Puyana’s performances of the sonatas for harpsichord by Domenico Scarlatti are widely accepted as a landmark in the history of Scarlatti playing of the 20 th  century and continues to be so, into the 21 st . Such an accomplishment was achieved by him over a lifetime of passionate dedication and tireless research. A previous version of his recordings of the Scarlatti sonatas had already been considered a “reference” in this field in a review of 1985, signed by Jean Dupart. That same year, Puyana had been the chosen harpsichordist and was filmed performing several sonatas for two documentary films, one produced by the BBC, in association with RM Arts, and the other by the Radio Televisión Española, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Neapolitan composer’s birth. Amongst the numerous recognitions received, King Juan Carlos of Spain bestowed on him the Order of Isabel la Católica, for his contributions to early and contemporary Spanish keyboard music. Puyana’s passion for Scarlatti was already well established in the 1950s, when he moved to Lakeville, Connecticut, in order to be as close as possible to Wanda Landowska, and benefit from her experience in lessons during a period which extended over seven years, at her home in that town. During those formative years, Puyana devoted considerable time and effort into studying and mastering Scarlatti’s music and that of the Neapolitan’s pupil, the Spanish priest, Padre Antonio Soler. His fascination with the music of these composers and that of their contemporaries of related geographic and cultural origin led to the rediscovery of lesser known repertoire, which he played and recorded in breathtaking and memorable performances.

The present album represents Puyana’s last thoughts in that line, and stands among the last projects of our collaboration for the SannCtuS label, which lasted nearly two decades. It combines in its vast majority recordings from the SanCtuS collection of Puyana recordings, all of which were completely revised and to a large extent reedited. This process, which took place at his Paris flat, under the close supervision of the artist, was shaped by his superb artistry and backed by his vast knowledge of both the subject matter and repertory. As musical producer of his late recordings, it was most inspiring to see the complexity of his refined art come to life during and after recording sessions and observe the masterly manner in which he combined intense artistic expression with academic rigor. Whilst getting ready to listen together to exhilarating musical results achieved in this manner, the sparkle in his eyes was intensified whenever I would advise him to “fasten his seatbelt” for what we were about to hear. Normally, such sessions would tend to provide his endless imagination with conceptions that led to further enhancements. Indulging in complacent self-satisfaction was not among his traits. The enriching hours spent with Puyana were not only of profound formative value but they offered me a unique exposure to his thoughts on and insights into his perception of the evolution of the interpretation of Scarlatti. Hence, with regard to some of the significant contributions in the field of Scarlatti interpretations during the 20 th century, he felt that many celebrated achievements had left memorable impressions, in performances of pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz and Myra Hess. He felt that even though they maintained a high level of artistry and technique, it should be reminded that their involvement with Domenico Scarlatti was cornered by playing his music on the modern concert piano, an instrument through which, he felt, one cannot “take into consideration the stylistic nuances imposed by the gradual development of historical knowledge, brought about by the 20 th  century Early Music Revival”. He further pointed out that, although Manuel de Falla had championed as early as 1917 Scarlatti and Soler programmes, played on the modern piano in Granada, it was Wanda Landowska who, as early as 1923 had played full-Scarlatti harpsichord recitals at her famous music school at Saint-Leu-la-Forêt and recorded 44 of the sonatas, between 1923 and 1940, ranging from the Victor Company’s studios in Camden, N.J. to the Studio de la Grande Armée, in Paris, for La Voix de Son Maître. All these recordings were of such superlative artistic quality that they have ever since never been absent from record catalogues.

During the many privileged hours together, Puyana also referred to Ralph Kirkpatrick, who performed and recorded throughout the 1950s and 1960s recitals of Scarlatti’s music, in line with his Urtext edition of 30 sonatas (Schirmer, New York) and of his “important analytical biography” of the composer, published in 1953. Puyana had a high esteem for Fernando Valenti, who he thought to have been Kirkpatrick’s most talented pupil at Yale University and who he knew from the time both lived in New York. He liked to reminisce on how the Spaniard performed memorable Scarlatti recitals at the New York Town Hall and made a number of distinguished, vital and exciting recordings of the sonatas for Westminster Records. The celebrated Landowska student thought that Valenti’s Spanish origins helped reveal a genuine understanding of the Spanish folkloric element in Scarlatti’s music. Although he valued Scott Ross’ Scarlatti interpretations, Puyana was skeptical with regard to “complete works” recordings of any composer by any musician, which for him were “marathon-like projects”, in which quantity challenged the pursuit of utmost quality. Overall, he was open to new ideas and generous with giving credit whenever he felt there was genuine talent and quality. Asked about the broad recognition and success of his own Scarlatti interpretations, Puyana thought it had to do with the “visceral feeling, both spiritual and physical”, for the Neapolitan’s music he loved so much. He also thought that it was his own Spanish ancestry, which led him to develop quite naturally a passion for Spanish keyboard music, dating from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century.


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