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Domenico CIMAROSA (1749-1801)
Overtures - Volume 2
L'Armida immaginaria
(1777) [5:06]
Oreste (1783) [6:40]
L'Italiana a Londra (1778) [7:38]
Artaserse (1784) [9:06]
Alessandro nell' Indie (1780) [9:42]
La donna sempre al suo peggior s'appiglia (1785) [5:08]
La Circe
(1783) [9:34]
Il fanatico per gli antichi Romani
(1777) [7:35]
Giannina e Bernadone
(1781) [6:55]
Toronto Chamber Orchestra/Kevin Mallon
rec. St Anne's Church, Toronto, Canada, 10-12 July 2006
NAXOS 8.570279 [67:27]
Experience Classicsonline

As a student in the 1960s, I encountered the music of Domenico Cimarosa just twice, once on record and once in a concert. The problem was that, back then, if I’d wanted more (which I did), concert programmes and record shops weren’t exactly replete with follow-up material. As the years rolled by, and in spite of the increasing availability of this sort of repertoire, I just never got round to investigating further. Indolence, it seems, can make fools of us all.
Nevertheless, I still cherish my old LP recording (Evelyn Rothwell/Pro Arte O/Barbirolli) of Arthur Benjamin’s arrangement of four of the keyboard sonatas into a scrumptious Oboe Concerto. Even after more than forty years, recalling the live encounter still fills me with a warm glow and raises a smile to crack my normally dour countenance. It took place in Newcastle City Hall, where the redoubtable Northern Sinfonia Orchestra was conducted by a certain Mr. Geraint Evans, fully costumed and bewigged for the part of Il Maestro di Cappella.
There aren’t many concert performances that reduce their audiences to tears of mirth, but this was one of them. For instance, every time the double-bassist tried to play, the maestro would advance admonishingly, shushing him with, “Questro ‘strumento non fra per me!” – which translates roughly as, “This instrument won’t do for me!” Eventually, the poor chap went on strike. He stuck his bow through the strings into the sound-hole so that it protruded at a defiant and – I presume unintentionally – somewhat phallic angle. Then he parked his elbow on his knee, his chin on his hand, and sulked. The contrite maestro then had to exercise all his inconsiderable powers of diplomacy to retrieve the situation. Of course, the gag was predominantly visual, but even so, it wouldn’t have been half as hilarious without Cimarosa’s subtly satirical music.
My two encounters form a fortuitous pair. Given the melodic felicity of the former and the comic-dramatic flair of the latter, I am not surprised to learn – at long last! – that during his career Cimarosa churned out 65 operas, mostly buffo. That’s an awful lot – it works out at an average of two a year. Not unexpectedly, all the overtures on this CD are in the “Italian style” of fast-slow-fast. However, apparently without relation to the dates of composition, some of them are single movements whilst others retain the older “sinfonia” format of three separate movements. In either flavour, they come across less as operatic overtures and, I’m happy to say, more as finely crafted little “symphonies” in the manner of, say, William Boyce.
Mildly interesting that might be, but what I found really intriguing was the compositional style. There was no mistaking that Cimarosa, in his bustling fast sections, had gratefully inherited Vivaldi’s famous bent for cyclic rhythmic figuration. Equally, there was no mistaking the gratitude owed to Cimarosa by the composer who inherited his operatic crown, Gioachino Rossini. O.K., this may not add up to cutting-edge musicology, but it does make for a satisfying little slice of musical evolution in action.
This collection is the second volume of a series. Not having even heard the first volume, I risked committing the critic’s cardinal sin by looking up its MWI reviews. I found two. One, which includes a commendable potted background, was by Göran Forsling; the other was by my much-missed friend, the late Adrian Smith. In several significant respects they differ diametrically. Try these for size. Göran: “[They] make a good evening’s listen.” Adrian: “. . . listening to them one after another is a wearisome experience.” Göran: “. . . a golden opportunity to make the acquaintance of some of the most spirited music of the late 18th. century.” Adrian: “. . . a disc of very limited appeal.
Who is “right”? Ah, I’m not going to fall for that one! I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you this, but I’ll say it anyway, to be sure we understand one another: reviews are not factual statements which may be right or wrong, but critical opinions born of the reviewer’s observations, experience, knowledge, personal taste, temper and – last but not least – prejudices. Hence, we can’t say which of Adrian and Göran’s reviews is right, but merely try to reconcile their disparate views.
This I feel obliged to do, not least because, it seems to me, what they said about volume 1 applies equally to this volume 2. Actually, it’s an easy task, because it all boils down to the “sheep principle” – that is, to most folk all sheep look alike, but the more you know about sheep, the less alike they all seem. Göran clearly knows his “sheep”, whilst Adrian admitted he was a “middle-of-the-road listener”.
I myself found each of these overtures thoroughly delightful, but I must admit that hearing them parading one after the other was indeed akin to “counting sheep”. However, I expect this impression to fade with further listening, in which I will be much encouraged by the sheer pleasure they so evidently offer. Of course, the acid test will be whether I get to the point where I desperately desire to add further volumes of the series to my collection!
Mind you, what I won’t be doing again is hearing them in one gulp, any more than I would gorge myself on Vivaldi’s violin concertos. Unless you know your “sheep”, it’s best to treat them like vitamin tablets or fish-oil capsules – take one a day and you’ll feel so much better for it. With apologies to Göran, I suspect that I may not be able to resist making occasional use of this CD as “musical wallpaper”.
The Toronto CO under Kevin Mallon play with oodles of flair and refinement. The TCO is something of a hybrid, playing on modern instruments but otherwise adopting authentic performance practice – and thus proving, to me at least, that the “authentic sound” is if anything more due to how you play the instruments than to what instruments you use. If the sound of a “period band” – with its zero-rated vibrato and tendency of held notes to “bulge” a bit – is anathema to you, then steer well clear. Everyone else can join me in applauding all the alert articulation, keen textures, lithe rhythms and immaculate phrasing that are part and parcel of the best period performances.
The recording is almost uniformly excellent. I harbour some slight doubt about the tympani, which occasionally sound a mite muffled and boomy, even though the attack suggests that the sticks used are quite hard. However, I suspect this is a quirk of the otherwise exemplary acoustics. Possibly the tymps. were too close to some concavity, because around all the other instruments there is a wonderful openness, a feeling of fresh, clear air. In this recording the acoustic, far from being something “in the background”, feels to be radiating from the instruments, lending to the sound an integrity you generally only hear in a (good) concert hall.
The booklet comprises an informative essay by Allan Badley and Nick Rossi, a note about the TCO and a full list of players, plus a page about the conductor. These are in English, along with a German translation of the essay only. I presume, with my tongue in my cheek, that this is for the benefit of the majority of Germans, whose English runs to reading notes about performers but who can’t cope with articles about composers?
Right, let’s sum up. Admirably recorded in an ambience to die for, these are spirited performances of music that’s a cut above the needs of its original purpose, and will fail to entertain and edify only those who over-indulge their appetites. Right, time for another nibble …
Paul Serotsky


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