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Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700/01-1775)
Sonata a 4° Stromenti in C (JC 7) [07:50]
Avertura a 4° Stromenti in D (JC 14) [05:52]
Overtura à 6 in F (JC 33) [06:36]
Sonata a 4° Stromenti in A (JC 65) [09:01]
Overtura a 4° Stromenti in F (JC 36) [09:52]
Overtura a 4° Stromenti in c minor (JC 9) [08:56]
Sinfonia a 4° Stromenti in G (JC 39) [10:04]
Sinfonia in D (JC 15) [04:40]
Overtura a 4° Stromenti in F (JC 37) [09:53]
Orchestra da Camera Milano Classica/Roberto Gini
rec. January 2005, Palazzina Liberty, Milan, Italy. DDD
DYNAMIC CDS460 [72:56]
Experience Classicsonline

The symphony is one of the most important genres in the repertoire of today's orchestras. In descriptions of the history of this genre the name of Giovanni Battista Sammartini is often referred to as someone who played an important role in the development of the classical symphony. No less than Joseph Haydn, the first composer of symphonies which have come to be very much part of today's orchestral repertoire, acknowledged his debt to Sammartini in his own development as a symphonist. In the light of this it is remarkable that Sammartini's own contributions are almost completely ignored. One reason for this is that relatively few them are available in modern editions. But thanks to Bathia Churgin and Newell Jenkins we at least know which orchestral works Sammartini wrote - hence the "JC" in the tracklist, referring to the thematic catalogue.

As he is not that well-known it is useful to give some biographical information. Sammartini was the seventh of eight children of Alexis Saint-Martin, a French oboist who had emigrated to Italy. He was probably born in Milan, where he worked most of his life. It is assumed he received his first musical education from his father. It is not therefore surprising that he and his older brother Giuseppe landed their first jobs as oboists in an orchestra in Milan. In 1728 he became maestro di cappella of the Congregazione del SS Entierro. Soon he developed into one of Milan's leading composers of church music. An almanac in the 1770s mentions him as maestro di cappella of no fewer than eleven churches.

He also wrote secular vocal music, including operas, and instrumental works. He was one of the first in Europe to write symphonies. His music was widely admired: in 1738 a symphony was performed in Amsterdam, another in the famous concert series in Paris, the Concert Spirituel. He also saw his music being published in Paris and London. In England his oeuvre was especially popular. An inventory of the court of the Esterházys mentions two of his symphonies, and it is probably through these that Haydn became acquainted with his symphonic works.

The early examples of the genre are close to the Italian opera overture, with its three movements: fast - slow - fast. This connection is underlined by the titles of some of Sammartini's early symphonies as recorded here. Most are for strings and bc, with two additional horns in the fast movements of the Overtura à 6 (JC 33). The programme notes say: "In time some modifications were added to the original including notably the addition of horns (adopted here)". They don't say whether these additions were made by Sammartini himself or by someone else.

Not only in name but also in style many of the pieces here are closer to the opera overture of the baroque era. As is noted in the booklet there are some similarities to the style of Vivaldi, but Sammartini's musical language is by and large quite original. One of specific aspects is that often the two violin parts are independent of each other, although imitation between the two parts regularly appears in these symphonies. The opening movement of the very first piece on the disc offers a good example. The use of rhythm is also often inventive, as in the first movement of the Avertura in D (JC 14). Sammartini shows creativity in the use of harmony, and there is a lot of expression in the slow movements.

It is good news that this disc is part of a recording project covering all Sammartini's symphonies. There are other activities in this regard which are worth mentioning. These include the recording of Sammartini's late symphonies by the Accademia d'Arcadia, directed by Alessandra Rossi Lürig (Brilliant Classics). I have to say that, although the early and the late symphonies are difficult to compare, I like the latter recording better than the one reviewed here. Roberto Gini is a leading representative of historical performance practice in Italy, and therefore it is a little surprising that he has chosen to record Sammartini's early symphonies with modern instruments. The players try to play in the style of period instrument ensembles, but the results are somewhat disappointing. I particularly miss the dynamic accents other ensembles are able to introduce into their performances - even those which are also using modern instruments, like the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam. Two of the items on this disc, the Avertura in D (JC 14) and the Sinfonia in G (JC 39), have also been recorded by the Ensemble 415, directed by Chiara Banchini (Harmonia Mundi). These performances are much better, in use of dynamics, choice of tempi and overall sound of the string instruments. About the third movement of the Sinfonia in G the programme notes say: "the Allegro assai 'madly gives rein to the promptings of fervid fantasy'", but far too little of that is noticeable in this performance. Here as in some other movements the interpretation is surprisingly flat.

The booklet lacks any information about the ensemble which seems to be rather small. There is nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't excuse the thin sound it produces. I am also not very happy about the acoustic which is a shade on cavernous side. Another aspect which bothers me is the strong division between the left and the right channel. If one listens through headphones - which many people do these days, playing their discs on their PC or notebook - it is really annoying to hear the first violins only in the left ear and the second violins only in the right.

I don't want to sound too negative: this is an important release, and there is certainly a lot to enjoy. It is just disappointing that the performance doesn't fully reveal the quality of Sammartini's music. I sincerely hope that a real top-class ensemble on period instruments will record Sammartini's symphonies. Only then we will be able to discover his real importance as a composer.

Johan van Veen

see also Review by Brian Wilson


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