Giovanni Battista Sammartini was the more famous of two musical
Milanese brothers and one of the most influential agents in the
development of the symphony. Roberto Gini has already recorded
some of Sammartini’s Symphonies and Overtures for Dynamic (CDS414).
This new recording presents nine of the symphonies from his early
period (1724-39) as part of a planned project to record his entire
symphonic repertoire. Though variously designated Overtura,
Avertura, Sonata or Sinfonia, they all follow
a three-movement fast-slow-fast format, with the exception of
the Sinfonia in G, JC39, which has a four-movement format
– not quite the precursor of the four-movement classical symphony,
since the Minuetto forms the final movement, and is possibly
tacked on from another work.
I am not sure why these recordings from 2005 have
taken so long to be released. Everything about the finished
product is inviting, from the moment one picks up the CD with
its cover reproduction of Phaëton Driving Apollo’s Chariot.
I mistook this for a Tiepolo at first, but it is by Nicolas
Bertin, 1720, thus contemporary with the music. The painting
is also reproduced on the label and on the front of the booklet,
which is housed in a pocket in the well-designed triptych
sleeve. The promise offered by the packaging is not belied
by the music, the performance or the recording contained within.
I last encountered Sammartini’s music on a Virgin
Classics recording entitled Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli
(3 63430 2 – see review).
His Sinfonia in g minor, JC57, was one of the outstanding
works on that recording, pre-dating (and influencing?) Haydn’s
Sturm und Drang style – an energetic work which received
an energetic performance from Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi.
JW also found this an attractive work – see his review.
That same energy is apparent from the beginning
of the new CD, as if Sammartini had taken the more vigorous
aspects of Vivaldi and cranked them up a notch or two. If
the Bertin painting on the cover leads the prospective purchaser
to expect tame music in the galant style, it will prove misleading.
Some of the music is not very different from Vivaldi – there
are even odd echoes of passages from The Four Seasons
and other works; the finale of JC36 offers several such instances
– but much of it is so like early and mid-period Haydn as
to make one wonder that he referred to Sammartini as a mere
‘scribbler’. Compare the opening movement of JC33, track 7,
with Haydn’s mid-period symphonies.
Modern Italian interpreters of their own baroque
legacy tend to prefer a more forceful style than such predecessors
as I Musici, and Gini’s performances here are no exception.
Not that the tempi are extreme: vigorous rather than breakneck
– in fact, in the two works in common between the present
recording and Kevin Mallon’s with the Aradia Ensemble on Naxos
(8.557298), Mallon is the faster: a whole minute faster in
JC36, 21 seconds faster in JC9. I am, in general, an admirer
of Mallon’s performances, so I listened particularly intently
to Gini’s version of JC36, to see where the discrepancy might
arise. No sign of sluggishness in the opening vivace
– a fastish opening, followed by a more relaxed but by no
means slow tempo for the rest of the movement, with the music
allowed to relax where appropriate (4:35 against Mallon’s
The andante, too, seems to me to strike
just about the right ‘walking’ tempo; this is Sammartini at
his most charming and the charm – a wistful charm – comes
over in Gini’s performance (3:36 against Mallon’s 5:00). The
final allegro is as lively as I could wish it (1:38
against Mallon’s 1:35). I can only assume that the huge discrepancy
in the times for the first movement is due to differences
over the observation of repeats. The brief extract available
on the classicsonline website indicates that Mallon’s tempo
for the movement is lively, but the extract is too short to
judge and I cannot locate a review of this recording on MusicWeb.
The notes in the Dynamic booklet single out the
opening of JC9 as an example of sonorous attack in Sammartini’s
style, an observation neatly exemplified by the performance.
I might have liked just a shade sharper opening but as the
movement develops the playing is all that it should be. The
affetuoso slow movement of this work is one of the
most affective on this CD and it, too, receives a performance
to match without trying to squeeze too much emotion out of
it. The final allegro is a good example of Sammartini’s
impetuous style; no complaints about Gini’s interpretation.
As with JC36, for all my respect for those performances of
Kevin Mallon’s which I have heard, I cannot imagine that he
betters Gini’s interpretation of this work.
The recorded sound is
good – a little heavier than we are
used to for period ensembles. I am grateful
to an Italian reader who emailed us
to confirm that the Orchestra da Camera
Milano Classico employs modern instruments,
though Roberto Gini's experience as
a conductor of early music blurs the
distinction somewhat. I agree with this
correspondent that Dynamic should have
offered some information about the orchestra
in the booklet. The illustration in
the gatefold shows Roberto Gini with
a harpsichord in the background. If
there is a harpsichord on this recording,
it is virtually inaudible.
The notes are adequate but their multi-language
format means that they are rather brief. The English translation
is generally idiomatic but tends to assume that the reader
will understand without further explanation such expressions
as ‘ternary’. These Dynamic notes could usefully be supplemented
by Keith Anderson’s for Naxos – generously made available
free of charge on their website.
The quality of this recording encourages me to
investigate Gini’s other Sammartini CD, to which I have referred
above, and perhaps also his three Monteverdi recordings advertised
in the packaging of the present CD. Sammartini’s music may not
be as profound as the music of his pupil Glück and the composers
who followed him, but it is unfailingly attractive and often engaging
at a deeper level. If you like Vivaldi and want to see where the
next generation took his music, you ought to try it.