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Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Sinfonia ‘Improvisata’ in C major, RV802 [3:24]
Giovanni Battista Sammartini (1700/01-1775)
Overture (Sinfonia) J-C 57 in G minor (1749) [9:09]
Carlo Monza (c.1735-1801)
Sinfonia detta ‘La tempesta di mare’ in D major (ed. Biondi) [5:44]
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)
Sinfonia, Op.12, No.6 ‘La casa del diavolo’ G506 in D minor (1771, pub. as Op.16 in 1776) (rev. Antonio de Almeida) [19:13]
Giuseppe Demachi (1752-after 1791)
Sinfonia ‘Le campane di Roma’ in F major [16:02]
Europa Galante (Fabio Biondi; Renata Spotti; Carla Marotta; Liz MacCarthy; Silvia Rinaldi (violins I); Andrea Rognoni; Luca Giardini; Giancarlo Ceccacci; Silvia Falavigna (violins II); Stefano Marcocchi; Diego Mecca; Meri Skejic; Robert Brown (violas); Maurizio Naddeo; Antonio Fantinuoli; Violoni : Patxi Montero; Gianni Sabbioni (cellos); Marc Hantai; Yfen Chen; Oboes Marco Cera; Molly Marsh (flutes); François de Rudder; Maurizio Barigione (bassoon); Dileno Baldin; Brunello Gorla (horns); Paola Poncet (harpsichord))/Fabio Biondi (violin, direction)
rec. Fondazione Teatro Regio di Parma Auditorium Paganini, Parma, Italy, 20-24 November 2004. DDD.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 3 63430 2 [53:38]

The contents of this CD make a diverse collection, only loosely held together by the generic title.  That title is derived from the first item, a little-known, short, three-movement Vivaldi Sinfonia, the last two of which, linked together, play for less than one minute in total: blink and you’ll miss it.  I assume that this is RV802, though the booklet carelessly fails to identify it.  Though a rare piece – as far as I know, this is its only recording available in the UK – it was certainly worth including it as the overture to this collection.  The Cambridge Italian Dictionary gives the meaning of Improvvisata (literally, something unforeseen) as ‘a pleasant surprise’, an appropriate title for a disc where most of the pieces, including this Vivaldi work, are little known but very attractive. 

The playing of Europa Galante, too, makes an excellent curtain-raiser, setting the scene for a set of fine performances.  Though a comparatively small ensemble, they are capable of making a big, plush sound where appropriate but equally capable of sounding lithe or lyrical when necessary. 

The booklet notes that the spelling of Improvisata with a single v, usually with two Vs, is due to the fact that this was Vivaldi’s preferred spelling.  Improvvisata usually refers to descriptive music, though, as the booklet points out, it is not easy to make the distinction between programme music and descriptive music: Vivaldi’s own Four Seasons and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique would properly belong to the former category – though the booklet refers to the Seasons as descriptive music – since Vivaldi wrote a set of sonnets to accompany the former and Berlioz gave a detailed account of the story connected with the latter.  The booklet fails to mention what Vivaldi’s Improvisata is descriptive of – just a pleasant surprise, I suppose, which makes it rather like the title of Mozart’s Musical Joke. 

The quality of this CD is such, however, as to put any pedantic considerations to rest.  Two pieces in particular make the listener sit up, Boccherini’s Casa del diavolo and the Sammartini Overture.  The finale of the Boccherini sounds very familiar indeed: it turns out, in fact, to be a ‘borrowing’ from Gluck’s ballet Don Juan, a debt frankly acknowledged in the subtitle of the piece; the Don Juan music is itself redolent of Gluck’s own Dance of the Furies in Orfeo ed Euridice – in effect, a triple crib.  Elsewhere in this work the dances of his adopted Spain are as much in evidence as they are in that other Italian emigré, Domenico Scarlatti.  The performances capture the manic quality of the Don Juan rip-off – at least as well on John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of the Gluck ballet - a strongly recommended super-bargain CD, now on Warner Apex 8573 89233-2. They cope with the dance rhythms in the rest of the piece very well.  Lest it be thought that Gluck had reason to complain, the booklet notes that Gluck ‘borrowed’ the finale of the Sammartini Overture for his serenade La Contesa dei Numi – no copyright laws in those days! 

Haydn acknowledged his debt to the Sammartini work on this disc when, some twenty years later, he adopted its style in his so-called Sturm und Drang symphonies.  The motivation for the Sturm und Drang style is usually ascribed to Goethe’s die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) but here we have a clear and acknowledged musical antecedent.  As in the Boccherini work, Europa Galante revel in the sheer energy of this piece. 

Even Adelaïde de Place’s informative notes, well translated by Hugh Graham, do not make much claim for Monza (“Dash, grace and spirit, as well as an easy flow of melody, are [his] hallmarks”) or Demachi (“his talent for melody … imagination and sensibility, with lithe and lively writing”).  Europa Galante almost match Beecham’s skill, however, in making good second-rate music sound well worth hearing.  She ends by saying that the Demachi “is sure to be a pleasurable discovery” and that is certainly true of the CD as a whole.  One French reviewer has gone so far as to assert that Le campane di Roma merits as much attention as the works of Cannabich and Stamitz; I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to rank him with either Carl or Johann Stamič – it’s not even as good an imitation as can be heard in Purcell’s ‘Bell’ Anthem of the bells which are mentioned in the title. 

In fact, none of these pieces is likely to make it into anyone’s ‘100 essential works’ category, but they are all very worthwhile.  It’s just that I am not sure how often I shall want to hear any of them badly enough to get this CD out once it has been filed in my collection.  Though I have disagreed with the French reviewer about the relative merits of Demachi and the Stamičs, I concur with his summing-up: “Un disque non essential, mais réussi” – not an essential disc but a successful one. 

The recording throughout is excellent, though transferred at a rather high level – not that there is any distortion, but I found that I had to turn it down some 2 or 3 dB from my normal level, something which I seem to be saying more frequently recently. Perhaps modern digital transfer techniques can stand a bit more oomph. 

Two small complaints: 54 minutes is short value these days, even if this had been a reissue.  For a new recording, surely something else could have been found to round out the time – one of Vivaldi’s Concerti con titoli, such as his own Tempesta di mare, to match the Monza piece of that name, perhaps, but then they would have had to change the subtitle of the CD.  And why did they have to choose for the cover a detail from a painting of a concert in which the participants are so ugly I thought it must be from one of Hogarth’s satires?

Brian Wilson

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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