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Discovering the Classical String Trio – Volume 3
The Vivaldi Project
Rec. 2020, Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1623 [77:25]

Those of you who have read some of my previous reviews will know that I prefer my trios to have a piano in them, and may be wondering if I requested this by mistake. But no, I did know what I was asking for (and you may read into that what you like). As you can see from the title, this is the third release in this series, and I found that neither of the first two had been reviewed here. Given that music of this era is always, at the very least, pleasant, and there were three composers – Antes, Sirmen & Zannetti – who were totally new to me, I felt it was worth trying.

Today, the string trio as a genre lags well behind the string quartet and indeed the piano trio in popularity. As the booklet notes point out, the Classical era string trio, of which more than 2000 were written in the 18th century, is the link between the Baroque trio sonata and the string quartet, and even suggest - tongue slightly in cheek, I suspect - that the string quartet is essentially “a trio plus one”, rather than the current perception of the trio being “a quartet minus one”.

Five of the works presented here are for two violins and cello, the others (Zanetti & Wranitzky) for violin, viola and cello, which is the combination that we think of as defining the string trio now. The composers are Italian (Sammartini, Sirmen and Zanetti), Austrian by birth or adoption (Hoffmeister, Hofmann and Wranitzky) and most intriguingly, American (Antes). While I can’t see any claims for premiere recordings, I can only find previous versions of the Antes (New World Records) and Wranitzky (Brilliant Classics - review).

The programme begins with Sammartini, which is appropriate as he was born more than a generation before the others. He is given credit for his role in the early development of the symphony, but this trio is one of more than 150 he wrote for the combination. Neither of my previous encounters with his music (a Naxos disc of symphonies and an overture on a Europa Galante recording) were memorable, so I wasn’t expecting too much. Of the two brief movements – Affettuoso and Minuet – the former makes more of an impression, but by the end of the six minutes, I was wondering what other words I could use for “pleasant” in the rest of the review, as Sammartini’s Sonata was no more than that.

Mercifully, the next work was a substantial upgrade, musically and historically. Maddalena Sirmen née Lombardini was a product of the Venetian Ospedali system for providing musical education for girls. At seven, she had to audition to gain entry, only leaving at twenty-one to marry Lodovico Sirmen, a prominent violinist. She would then study with Tartini, before embarking on a career as a violin soloist, performing around Europe, including at the Concert Spirituels in Paris. Her compositions were widely published at the time. This is a remarkable story, totally at odds with my understanding of how women, especially married women, were received by the musical world at the time. Her sonata starts dramatically, and throughout provides a variety of musical ideas, textures and rhythms – an unalloyed gem. Given that this is Number 5 in the opus 1 set, it would be good to think that there are four others, at least, of similar quality, waiting to be recorded.

The three string trios of John Antes are the earliest known American chamber works, though it is believed that they were actually written whilst he was on missionary work in Egypt. This work is the first on the disc to be called a Trio, and gives each instrument an equal share of the music, which lies somewhere between the Sirmen and Sammartini in terms of interest. The minor key and the presence of the viola lend the music a darker tone than the first two works.

The booklet notes don’t provide any biographical information on Francesco Zannetti, nor does he rate a Wikipedia page in English. Translation of the Italian one indicates a significant career in Tuscany, but his list of works there is rather contradictory, as the Op 2 set is described as quartets, and two sets being given the title Op 1. There is a very clear absorption of the Viennese style on display in this two-movement work: elegance and humour abound. Not ground-breaking stuff, but definitely a cut above the average.

This leads us to the three Viennese composers, whose names have managed to retain a toehold in the consciousness of the keen collector, especially through the efforts of Naxos and Chandos. It is, however, with these three works where things go a little astray, or more accurately, anonymous. I am not convinced that the general listener could actually tell the difference if the nine movements were played in a completely random order, such is the similarity in style. Having bought a number of the Naxos 18th century Symphony and Concerto series recordings, I’m not too surprised. Always pleasant - that word again, where’s my thesaurus – but distinctive, sadly no. Of course, the music of the Classical era was not intended to rouse the emotions, but rather to entertain, and certainly the Wranitzky, Hoffmeister and particularly the Hofmann works do this. It is then extraordinary how Mozart and Haydn were able to rise above the great mass of music, and achieve both.

The Vivaldi Project – Elizabeth Field (violin), Allison Nyquist (violin, viola) and Stephanie Vial (cello) – was established in 2005 in Washington DC, and performs widely around the USA. Their emphasis on the lesser-known composers, despite their name, is to be applauded, as is MSR Classics for supporting them in this series. They play on period instruments without much/any vibrato, which may deter some, but I can assure you that the sound is not harsh, aggressive or tiring. If it had been, I wouldn’t have made it to the end of the disc. None of my reservations about the music can be put at the door of the performers, who are first-rate. The vitality imparted in the performance of the Sirmen demonstrates that. The booklet notes, written by cellist Stephanie Vial, are an excellent mix of history and musical analysis, and the sound quality is very natural.

There are no masterpieces here, but I would certainly like to hear more of Sirmen’s music at the very least. I might suggest in closing that listening to all seven works without a break isn’t the best way to appreciate this music, as it does become a little samey.

David Barker

Giovanni Sammartini (1700-1775)
Sonata in A, Op 5/1 (1756) [6:16]
Maddalena Lombardini Sirmen (1745-1818)
Sonata in G, Op 1/5 (1770) [9:29]
John Antes (1740-1811)
Trio in D, Op 3/2 (ca 1770-81) [13:24]
Francesco Zannetti (1737-1788)
Trio in D, Op 2/3 (1782) [8:53]
Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812)
Trio Concertant in G, Op 11/3 (c. 1790) [10:23]
Leopold Hofmann (1738-1793)
Trio ô Divertimento in C (c. 1750s) [11:37]
Paul Wranitzky (1756-1808)
Trio Concertant in G, Op 3/3 (c. 1793) [17:12]

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