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Giuseppe SAMMARTINI (1695 - 1750): "Sonatas for recorder and basso continuo vol. 1"

Andreas Böhlen, recorder; Daniel Rosin, cello; Pietro Prosser, lute; Michael Hell, harpsichord

rec: Sept 29 - Oct 2, 2018, Basel, Kapelle Adullam
Aeolus - AE-10306 (© 2020) (73'20")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Concerto in F (Parma No. 9); Sinfonia in c minor (Parma No. 14); Sinfonia in F (Parma No. 6); Sinfonia in F (Parma No. 12); Sonata in F (Parma No. 8); Sonata in g minor (Parmaa No. 10); Sonata in B flat (Parma No. 13)

When the name Sammartini turns up in books about music or liner-notes of recordings, it mostly relates to Giovanni Battista. He is considered one of the pioneers of the classical style, in particular in his symphonies which had some influence on the young Haydn. In comparison his older brother Giuseppe receives less attention, although his chamber music is well represented on disc. But there is still much to be discovered in his oeuvre, as this disc proves.

Contemporaries sometimes referred to Sammartini as "(San) Martini" which is derived from his father's name: Alexis Saint-Martin. He was of French birth and emigrated to Italy. Here Giuseppe was born, probably in Milan. Like his father, he became an oboist, and together with his brother he played in the orchestra of the Teatro Regio Ducale in Milan in the 1720s. The German flautist Johann Joachim Quantz heard him play and ranked him among the best of his time, of the same level on the oboe as Vivaldi on the violin.

In the late 1720s Giuseppe moved to Brussels and then to London, where he would remain until his death. It was there that he made a career as a virtuoso on the oboe and as a composer. The music historian John Hawkins stated: "As a performer on the hautboy, Martini was undoubtedly the greatest that the world had ever known." He performed with the best musicians of his time, such as Bononcini, Porpora and Handel. Many virtuosic obbligato parts in Handel's operas were performed by Sammartini. As a composer he also was rated highly. Hawkins described him as an "admirable composer" and Charles Burney wrote that his compositions were "full of science, originality and fire". In his lifetime the largest part of his printed output comprised chamber music. His concerti grossi and overtures were mostly printed after his death, sometimes deviating considerably from his intentions. The unscrupulous publisher John Walsh printed the Overtures opus 8 with oboe parts which included unplayable passages. At the same time this very fact proves Sammartini's reputation as Walsh wouldn't have printed these pieces if he hadn't expected them to find a good run of customers. The popularity of Sammartini's music is confirmed by the fact that his compositions were frequently performed by, for instance, the Academy of Ancient Music. Even in the 19th century his music still appeared on concert programmes.

The present disc focuses on a part of his output which has received relatively little attention, which can partly be explained by the fact that many of his recorder sonatas are not available in modern editions. David Lasocki, in his liner-notes, mentions that no fewer than 29 sonatas for alto recorder and basso continuo from his pen have come down to us. Most of them are included in two manuscripts, preserved in Parma (Italy) and Rochester (N.Y., USA) respectively. The first volume in what apparently should become a complete recording, is devoted to sonatas from the Parma manuscript. Their presence in an Italian collection suggests that they all date from the time Sammartini worked in Italy, before he settled in London. There is some stylistic development which is reflected by the fact that two pieces (Parma Nos. 9 and 10) have the traditional texture of four movements, whereas the others follow the later convention of dividing sonatas into three movements in the order fast - slow - fast. Most of Sammartini;s sonatas are written for the recorder in F: no fewer than sixteen of his sonatas are written in the key of F major.

The pieces presented on this disc bear three different titles: concerto, sinfonia and sonata. They don't indicate any differences in form or character: these terms are completely interchangeable. What they have in common is that they are very much unlike any other music written in Sammartini's time or before. Lasocki states: "Although Sammartini's works do not reach the technical heights of Vivaldi's written around the same time or a little later, nothing - I repeat, nothing - I have seen in any of the works that Sammartini might have been familiar with prepares us for his own works for recorder and basso continuo, which are staggeringly original." He analyses each sonata in detail, which is very helpful to understand the originality of the composer. The sonatas seem a kind of patchwork, and they remind me of the oeuvre of the German composer Christoph Graupner, which is also very different from anything written by his contemporaries.

Listening to these sonatas by Sammartini, one is not only struck by their technical brilliance, but also time and again surprised by the melodic twists and turns. In the music of other composers one often recognizes some formulas - what one could call 'commonplaces', without the negative connotation this term has today. They are completely absent here. Add to that typical features, like chromaticism, frequent suspensions and syncopations, different metres within a couple of bars, various balances between the recorder part and the basso continuo, which sometimes has its own passage work. The way single movements are structured, is also very different: some are in binary form, others are divided into four sections and some are through-composed. One just never knows what to expect.

This first volume suggests that the sonatas by Sammartini are an extremely important addition to the repertoire. In the booklet, Lasocki mentions quite a number of composers whose recorder sonatas are ignored to date. From that perspective, recorder players don't need to complain about a lack of repertoire. It is to be hoped that this unknown material will become available in modern editions or will at least be made available online by archives and libraries.

These sonatas by Sammartini are a big challenge to the interpreters. One can only admire the way the performers deal with this unusual and highly original material. Andreas Böhlen's interpretations are quite impressive. Playing the notes is not enough: one has to approach these pieces with fantasy and creativity, and these qualities are not only required from the recorder player, but also the basso continuo section. This ensemble leaves nothing to be desired. Their performances are compelling and often outright exciting. This is a disc any lover of the recorder would like to have in his collection and to which he will return regularly.

This disc is one of the most interesting and important releases of late, and I am looking forward to the next volume.

Johan van Veen (© 2020)

Relevant links:

Andreas Böhlen
Michael Hell

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