ROME 1709: Händel vs Scarlatti

Stradivarius 33623
1 CD
full price
Recorded in 2001
Released in 2002


  • Prelude in D minor (HWV 564)
  • Toccata in G minor (HWV 586)
  • Sonata in G minor – larghetto (HWV 580)
  • Sonatina in G minor – a tempo gusto (HWV 583)
  • Prelude & Allegro in A minor (HWV 576)
  • Allemande in A minor (HWV 478)
  • Allegro in D minor (HWV 475)
  • Partita in C minor (HWV 444/445) – Prelude; Allemande; Courante; Gavotte; Menuet
  • Fugue in F major (HWV 611)
  • Prelude & Capriccio in G major (HWV 571)
  • Sonatina in D minor (HWV 581)
  • Chaconne in F major (HWV 485)

Domenico Scarlatti:

  • Sonata in B minor K 87
  • Gavotte in D minor K 64 – Allegro
  • Toccata X in F major K 85 – Allegro; Fugue; Giga; Minuetto
  • Fugue in D minor K 41
  • Capriccio in G major K 63 – Allegro
  • Sonata in D minor K 34 – Larghetto
  • Sonata in A minor K 61

Luca Guglielmi – organs, harpsichord

The only evidence for Handel’s infamous encounters with his exact contemporary Domenico Scarlatti are their brief descriptions in Mainwaring’s Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel. The anecdote relates that Handel and Scarlatti entered a musical contest with each other at the palace of Cardinal Ottoboni, and that, although the common consensus was that they shared the palms on the harpsichord, Scarlatti generously acknowledged the Saxon’s superiority on the organ. Yet it was also Handel’s mastery of the organ that brought him attention in Rome: a contemporary diarist wrote on 14 January 1707 that “There is lately arrived in this city a Saxon who is a most excellent player upon the harpsichord and composer of music and who today made great pomp of his virtue in playing upon the organ in the church of San Giovanni to the amazement of all.”

It is unknown what music Handel would have performed on either of those two historic occasions. No body of organ music by Handel – apart from the concertos composed later in England - survives in a recognizable form. Furthermore, the harpsichord contest is likely to have been a battle of wits by two brilliant keyboard players extemporizing on the spot. We shall never know exactly what happened or what was played, so Luca Guglielmi has therefore assembled a sensible reconstruction of both events using suitable examples of the work of each composer. The resulting solo recital disc may be the closest we shall ever come to imagining these two colourful episodes from the youthful Handel’s time in Italy. It is a mild pity that there is not a great sense of competition in the contest between Handel and Scarlatti that constitutes the torso of the disc. Although the instruments and performances are excellent, perhaps two separate harpsichords, and, indeed, two separate harpsichordists, might have made the project seem more lifelike and dramatically engaging.

Yet Guglielmi really scores points in his suggestion for ‘Handel’s recital’ at the church of San Giovanni in Laterano: it is actually recorded in that church, using the same instrument that Handel would have played on 14 January 1707, although it has undergone several restorations since (bravo to the record label for including such thorough documentation about both this and the other instruments used on the recording). The magnificent organ had originally attracted Handel because it was reputed to be the largest in Rome, and it still makes quite a bit of noise today. It somehow seems odd that none of Handel’s opera houses still stand, yet both this Roman organ and the smaller instrument at the Duke of Chandos’s church still exist and are playable in something resembling their allegedly original states.

Any Handel lovers that might wish to have been a fly on the wall at either of the events that inspired this disc ought to be at least moderately enchanted by Guglielmi’s recital. His may be an unfamiliar name to most, yet his performances are consistent and assured. Although this disc is of admittedly obscure repertoire, in some ways it arouses more curiosity and musicological satisfaction than looser concepts such as Andrew Parrott’s ‘Carmelite Vespers’ and Robert King’s 'The Coronation of George II'.

© David Vickers - October 2002

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