Florian Leopold GASSMANN (1729-1774)

Opera Overtures
La notte critica (The Critical Night) (1768) [6:51]
Gli uccellatori (The Birdcatchers) (1759) [5:08]
Filosofia ed amore (Philosophy and Love) (1760) [5:51]
La casa di campagna (The Country House) (1773) [5:15]
La contessina (The Young Countess) (1770) [7:50]
Il viaggiatore ridiculo (The Ridiculous Traveller) (1766) [7:13]
Il filsofo innamorato (The Philosopher in Love) (1771) [6:03]
L’amore artegiano (Love in the Workplace) (1767) [7:18]
Un pazzo ne fa cento (One Madman Makes Many) (1762) [5:26]
Le pescatrici (The Fisherwomen) (1771) [6:33]
Eclipse Chamber Orchestra/Sylvia Alimena
rec. 24 October 2006 and 12 March 2007, George Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, Virginia
NAXOS 8.570421 [64:10]
Born in Brux, now known as Most, in Bohemia, Gassmann had to leave home - partly because his goldsmith father did not approve of his choice of career - in order to study music. Making his way to Italy he may have studied with Padre Martini and certainly worked and learned much in Venice. By 1757 he was sufficiently well established to have his opera Merope produced at the Teatro San Moise during the Venetian Carnival. His success in Italy - five more operas followed - and the Viennese production of his opera Catone in Utica in the 1761-2 season) that led to his being invited to take up an appointment in Vienna in 1763. Succeeding Gluck there, he became a figure of considerable importance in the musical life in the city; so much so that Empress Maria Theresa acted as godmother to one of his children. On a trip to Venice in 1765-6 he met Salieri, then in his mid teens, and brought him back to Vienna as a pupil.
As a composer, Gassmann wrote church music and quartets of some distinction, but it is his operas that have been responsible for such relatively little attention as he has attracted in modern times. A 2003 production of his L’Opera seria of 1769 (with a libretto by Ranieri de Calzabigi) at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty and conducted by René Jacobs, was well reviewed and generally admired.
This new CD from Naxos offers lively performances of ten of Gassmann’s operatic overtures - some of which had an independent life as symphonies - played with attractive vivacity by the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Sylvia Alimena. It was formed in 1992 by members of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.
The overtures show Gassmann to be a thorough professional of high competence but not, on the evidence of these works, a composer of great individuality or originality. The music has considerable charm; only in one or two of the slow movements (try that of Gli uccellatori) in these three part overtures does one encounter music that digs a little deeper, emotionally speaking. At its best this is the music of sensibility, rather than of passion or profundity.
Without knowing whether or not these overtures incorporate themes from the operas they introduce - I suspect that they don’t - there is relatively little to distinguish them one from another. They might very well be used interchangeably. One partial exception comes in La Casa de campagna, which is more distinctive in mood and imagery, pastoral in flavour and spiced with hunting horns, closing with an imaginative contradance. One notes that La Casa de campagna belongs to 1773, only a year before Gassmann’s death in a fall from a carriage. It is tempting to think that Gassmann’s early death cut off a significant development in his career as a composer.
This is not, perhaps, a CD best listened to right through. But there are plenty of individual movements to which one is likely to feel the urge to return to now and then – such as the opening allegro of Il viaggiatore ridiculo, which has some effective manipulations of tempo and dynamics and a fair sense of the dramatic - though we are a long way from Mozart.
This music’s rococo elegance offers real enough pleasures, but is essentially minor in nature and scope. A full recording of one of these operas might perhaps make one think differently?
Glyn Pursglove
Charming, lightweight overtures attractively played … see Full Review