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Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700/01-1775)
Sacred Cantatas
Maria Addolorata, cantata sacra
Il pianto di San Pietro, cantata sacra
Silvia Mapelli, soprano; Sonia Prina, contralto; Mirki Guadagnini, tenor
Capriccio Italiano Ensemble/Daniele Ferrari
Recorded live 31 March 1999 in the Santa Maria Hoè Parish Church, Milan, Italy. DDD
NAXOS 8.557431 [78:04]

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Giovanni Battista Sammartini is considered the father of the symphony, who influenced none other than Joseph Haydn, even though the latter always denied it. But that could be explained by the fact that Sammartini was a somewhat controversial character, and his music wasn't generally appreciated.

He was born the son of a French oboist, who had moved to Italy, probably in Milan, where he remained all his life. He became an oboist and organist, and was soon playing an important role in musical life in Milan. He started as an oboist in the orchestra of the Regio Ducal Teatro, together with his elder brother Giuseppe. By 1726 he was already called 'very famous' and at the end of his life he was 'maestro di cappella' of at least 8 churches. He composed symphonies, concertos, chamber music, operas and also religious works, among them five cantatas for the Congregazione del SS Entierro, which had its headquarters at the Jesuit church of S Fedele. During Lent the congregation met at Friday evenings for a non-liturgical service, which included a sermon and a cantata on an Italian text. The cantatas recorded here were first performed in 1751.

The structure of both cantatas is identical: they start with an 'introduzione', and then three pairs of recitatives and arias follow, for alto, tenor and soprano respectively. After another short recitative the cantatas end with a 'coro' for the three voices. The orchestra consists of strings and basso continuo, with additional oboes and horns. The alto aria in the first cantata has an obbligato part for the cello.

Although the texts are related to the Passion of Christ they are not based on the gospels. The first is about the sorrow of Mary about the death of her Son: "My poor heart! Thus, amidst such suffering and pain was my Child to be taken from me?" Mary, Cleophas's wife, and Jesus's disciple John try to comfort her.

The second cantata deals with the sorrow of Peter about his denial of Jesus: "O my destiny, forever unhappy unless my tears arouse Heaven's pity!" He is comforted by John and James. The last words of the last recitative reveal the moral intent of cantatas like this one: "And your failings will be an eternal warning, putting fear into the just."

The article on Sammartini in The New Grove says: "It is in Sammartini's religious works that many of his most dramatic and sophisticated pages are found, as well as a grandeur of effect absent from his other works." The cantatas on this disc certainly support this view. There is no lack of drama in the arias, and the recitatives contain "chromatic and dissonant harmonies", as the article says. It is a shame that the performance disguises these qualities.

The playing - on modern instruments - is pretty old-fashioned, and flat, with an almost complete lack of dynamic accents. There is too little expression of the text here, both from the orchestra and from the singers. The recitatives are sung in strict tempo, without the freedom composers expected performers to take. There is no differentiation between the strong and weak syllables in phrases. And the use of quite a lot of vibrato, both by the singers and the players, covers up the harmonic peculiarities. The cadenzas with which the arias ends are not very imaginative, and sometimes stylistically dubious, for example in the first aria of the first cantata, where the contralto goes far beyond the range of her part.

As hardly any recordings of Sammartini's vocal works exist the mediocre quality of this recording is a big disappointment. One can only hope that it will at least direct the attention to Sammartini as a composer of expressive vocal music which deserves more attention than it has received so far.

Johan van Veen

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