Sammartini: Symphonies, Etc / Gini, Milan Classical Chamber Orchestra

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Sammartini’s music is well worth hearing in these attractive performances. Giovanni Battista Sammartini was the more famous of two musical Milanese brothers and one of...
Sammartini’s music is well worth hearing in these attractive performances.

Giovanni Battista Sammartini was the more famous of two musical Milanese brothers and one of the most influential agents in the development of the symphony. Roberto Gini has already recorded some of Sammartini’s Symphonies and Overtures for Dynamic (CDS414). This new recording presents nine of the symphonies from his early period (1724-39) as part of a planned project to record his entire symphonic repertoire. Though variously designated Overtura, Avertura, Sonata or Sinfonia, they all follow a three-movement fast-slow-fast format, with the exception of the Sinfonia in G, JC39, which has a four-movement format – not quite the precursor of the four-movement classical symphony, since the Minuetto forms the final movement, and is possibly tacked on from another work.

I am not sure why these recordings from 2005 have taken so long to be released. Everything about the finished product is inviting, from the moment one picks up the CD with its cover reproduction of Phaëton Driving Apollo’s Chariot. I mistook this for a Tiepolo at first, but it is by Nicolas Bertin, 1720, thus contemporary with the music. The painting is also reproduced on the label and on the front of the booklet, which is housed in a pocket in the well-designed triptych sleeve. The promise offered by the packaging is not belied by the music, the performance or the recording contained within.

I last encountered Sammartini’s music on a Virgin Classics recording entitled Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli (3 63430 2 – see review). His Sinfonia in g minor, JC57, was one of the outstanding works on that recording, pre-dating (and influencing?) Haydn’s Sturm und Drang style – an energetic work which received an energetic performance from Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi. JW also found this an attractive work – see his review.

That same energy is apparent from the beginning of the new CD, as if Sammartini had taken the more vigorous aspects of Vivaldi and cranked them up a notch or two. If the Bertin painting on the cover leads the prospective purchaser to expect tame music in the galant style, it will prove misleading. Some of the music is not very different from Vivaldi – there are even odd echoes of passages from The Four Seasons and other works; the finale of JC36 offers several such instances – but much of it is so like early and mid-period Haydn as to make one wonder that he referred to Sammartini as a mere ‘scribbler’. Compare the opening movement of JC33, track 7, with Haydn’s mid-period symphonies.

Modern Italian interpreters of their own baroque legacy tend to prefer a more forceful style than such predecessors as I Musici, and Gini’s performances here are no exception. Not that the tempi are extreme: vigorous rather than breakneck – in fact, in the two works in common between the present recording and Kevin Mallon’s with the Aradia Ensemble on Naxos (8.557298), Mallon is the faster: a whole minute faster in JC36, 21 seconds faster in JC9. I am, in general, an admirer of Mallon’s performances, so I listened particularly intently to Gini’s version of JC36, to see where the discrepancy might arise. No sign of sluggishness in the opening vivace – a fastish opening, followed by a more relaxed but by no means slow tempo for the rest of the movement, with the music allowed to relax where appropriate (4:35 against Mallon’s 2:17).

The andante, too, seems to me to strike just about the right ‘walking’ tempo; this is Sammartini at his most charming and the charm – a wistful charm – comes over in Gini’s performance (3:36 against Mallon’s 5:00). The final allegro is as lively as I could wish it (1:38 against Mallon’s 1:35). I can only assume that the huge discrepancy in the times for the first movement is due to differences over the observation of repeats. The brief extract available on the classicsonline website indicates that Mallon’s tempo for the movement is lively, but the extract is too short to judge and I cannot locate a review of this recording on MusicWeb.

The notes in the Dynamic booklet single out the opening of JC9 as an example of sonorous attack in Sammartini’s style, an observation neatly exemplified by the performance. I might have liked just a shade sharper opening but as the movement develops the playing is all that it should be. The affetuoso slow movement of this work is one of the most affective on this CD and it, too, receives a performance to match without trying to squeeze too much emotion out of it. The final allegro is a good example of Sammartini’s impetuous style; no complaints about Gini’s interpretation. As with JC36, for all my respect for those performances of Kevin Mallon’s which I have heard, I cannot imagine that he betters Gini’s interpretation of this work.

The recorded sound is good – a little heavier than we are used to for period ensembles. The illustration in the gatefold shows Roberto Gini with a harpsichord in the background. If there is a harpsichord on this recording, it is virtually inaudible.

The notes are adequate but their multi-language format means that they are rather brief. The English translation is generally idiomatic but tends to assume that the reader will understand without further explanation such expressions as ‘ternary’. These Dynamic notes could usefully be supplemented by Keith Anderson’s for Naxos – generously made available free of charge on their website.

The quality of this recording encourages me to investigate Gini’s other Sammartini CD, to which I have referred above, and perhaps also his three Monteverdi recordings advertised in the packaging of the present CD. Sammartini’s music may not be as profound as the music of his pupil Glück and the composers who followed him, but it is unfailingly attractive and often engaging at a deeper level. If you like Vivaldi and want to see where the next generation took his music, you ought to try it.

-- Brian Wilson, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: March 25, 2008

  • UPC: 8007144604608

  • Catalog Number: DYN-CDS460

  • Label: Dynamic

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Giovanni Battista Sammartini

  • Conductor: Roberto Gini

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Milan Chamber Orchestra

  • Performer: Gini