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You may never have heard the name of Egidio Romualdo Duni. I hadn't either before this disc crossed my path. In 2016 Brilliant Classics released a recording of Les deux chasseurs et la laitière, one of many comedies from his pen. It may surprise you that the title is in French but that can be easily explained. In the late 1750s Duni settled in Paris, where in 1761 he was appointed director of the Comédie-Italienne. He had always been involved in musical theatre and his first opera was staged in Naples in 1735.
Naples is also the city where he received his musical education. After early successes with opera performances in Naples, Rome and Milan, he went to London where he performed the English version of his opera Demofoonte. Interestingly, this was the last opera in which the famous castrato Farinelli appeared on the stage. When Duni fell ill, he decided to go to Leyden in the Netherlands, to see the famous physician Herman Boerhaave. He recovered and in 1738 enrolled at Leyden University. During his few years in the Netherlands he published the music, which is the subject of the present disc.
The set of six trio sonatas op. 1 was printed in Rotterdam, probably in 1739. They are scored for two violins, cello and basso continuo. In the recording by the DuniEnsemble, the violin plays a minor role. Most of the treble parts are performed on transverse flute and recorder. In some movements one of the upper parts is played on the mandolin, and in others each part is performed on two instruments. This seems rather odd. Chamber music was usually intended for amateurs, and the transverse flute and recorder were particularly popular in those circles. This was especially the case in the Netherlands where music life was dominated by domestic playing, due to the lack of aristocratic courts. Even though the title page only refers to violins and cello, a performance on different instruments is legitimate. That said, the change of the line-up within a single sonata and in particular the performance of a single part on two instruments is highly questionable. The involvement of a mandolin seems rather arbitrary. It is a shame that the liner-notes don't discuss this performance practice aspect.
The sonatas alternate with some pieces from the collection of Minuetti e contridanze, published in London in 1738. These are scored for treble and bass. Again here, the upper parts are performed on two instruments. The liner-notes state that this practice "aims to reconstruct the colours of the folk dances of Northern Europe, thus demonstrating the great distance of these simple dance melodies from the Italian three-part sonatas of the Rotterdam press." The bass part is played on the bassoon, not in the way of a basso continuo. The booklet fails to indicate whether the bass part is figured. One wonders why not more of these pieces have been included, considering the extremely short playing time.
As one might expect during this period of time, the music was published and due to Duni's Neapolitan background, these pieces were written in the gallant idiom. In the trio sonatas we find some passages with counterpoint, for instance in the fugues in the opening movements of the Sonatas No. 3 and No. 6. Otherwise, the two treble instruments mostly play in parallel motion and there are even quite a number of passages where all the instruments play in unison. Duni's oeuvre comprises almost exclusively vocal music, particularly music for the theatre. These two collections are his only contributions to the genre of instrumental music. From this, one may conclude that he was not particularly interested in such music. He may well have explored the demand for instrumental pieces among amateurs in the Netherlands. These pieces are nice to listen to but probably more fun to play. It would be an exaggeration to say that they are a substantial contribution to the chamber music repertoire. Maybe they would make a different impression in a performance of the original scoring for violins and cello. That said, they are well played by the DuniEnsemble and at budget price, you can hardly go wrong with this disc.