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Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700/01 - 1775): "Harpsichord Sonatas"

Simonetta Heger, harpsichord

rec: Oct 7 - 9, 2017, Milan, Ottavanota (Sala di concerti)
Dynamic - CDS7841 ( 2019) (62'36")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata No. 1 in C; Sonata No. 2 in F; Sonata No. 3 in G; Sonata No. 4 in C; Sonata No. 5 in D; Sonata No. 6 in d minor; Sonata No. 7 in F; Sonata No. 8 in a minor; Sonata No. 9 in C; Sonata No. 10 in G; Sonata No. 11 in G; Sonata No. 12 in A; Sonata No. 13 in B flat; Sonata No. 14 in C; Sonata No. 15 in C; Sonata No. 16 in C; Sonata No. 17 in G; Sonata No. 18 in G
[The numbering follows the first critical edition by Mariateresa Dellaborra, 1999]

Giovanni Battista Sammartini was the son of a French oboist, who had emigrated to Italy. He was probably born in Milan, as was his brother Giuseppe, five years his senior. They played together as oboists at S Celso in Milan in 1717, and three years later they were listed as such in the orchestra of the Regio Ducal Teatro there. Whereas his brother went to London, where he developed into one of the most celebrated performers of his time, Giovanni Battista stayed in Milan all his life. He played a crucial role in the city's musical life and composed many pieces for special occasions of the church and the state. He was also a prolific composer; many of his works were printed in Paris and London. His work list includes 142 symphonies, but a large number are of doubtful authenticity. This seems an indication of his reputation: it was profitable to publish a composition with his name on the title page.

It is this part of his oeuvre which has attracted most attention as he is considered a trailblazer of the classical style. The Bohemian-born Josef Myslivecek called him "the father of Haydn's style". The present disc is devoted to his keyboard music, which may well be the least-known part of his oeuvre. The work-list in New Grove mentions "c40 sonatas", but adds "many doubtful". Nothing of his output in this department was published separately: the sonatas, which were printed, are included in anthologies, together with pieces by composers such as his fellow Italian Domenico Alberti (who gave the Alberti bass its name) and the Swedish-born Johan Joachim Agrell. These sonatas are considered to date from the latest period of his life, roughly between 1760 and 1770 (some of them were recorded by Susanna Piolanti). The sonatas preserved in manuscript may have been written during the previous about forty years. The latter are the subject of this recording. They consist of a single movement, whereas the printed sonatas are in two movements (except one, which has three).

The sonatas selected for this disc show the stylistic development in Sammartini's oeuvre. He was educated in the baroque idiom, and that is expressed in some of the sonatas. During his development as a composer, the galant idiom disseminated across Europe, and many of his sonatas bear the traces of that. In the latest sonatas, the early classical style manifests itself. Sonatas like these were clearly intended for amateurs. They are technically not very complicated, although the frequent shifts in rhythm within single sonatas - for instance from binary to ternary and vice versa - require more than average skills. Some sonatas also include episodes where the hands cross or are inverted, and arpeggios spanning wide portions of the keyboard. The sonatas are devoid of any counterpoint. The right hand has most of the thematic material, whereas the left hand is mostly confined to a rather straightforward accompaniment, including Alberti basses.

The disc closes with the Sonata No. 11 in G, which opens with a toccata-like episode. Also notable is the Sonata No. 10 in G, which precedes it; it includes passages with the indication "with the trumpets register". This suggests that this sonata - and maybe it is not the only one - can (or should preferably) be played on the organ. The Sonata No. 17 in G includes indications of piano and forte. Mariateresa Dellaborra, in her liner-notes, states that this seems to suggest a performance on a harpsichord with two manuals. However, given that such instruments were rather rare in Italy, it may be rather an indication of the use of a fortepiano. In 1765, an edition of six keyboard sonatas, which also included pieces by Galuppi and Martini, mentions the fortepiano as an alternative to the harpsichord. It was published in London, where the fortepiano had established itself at a relatively early stage. However, several Italian composers became acquainted with the fortepiano as early as in the 1720s. An instrument which was once owned by Benedetto Marcello, has been preserved; it dates from 1722. From that perspective, it seems possible that Sammartini has also known this instrument relatively early in his career.

Simonetta Heger plays a copy of a German harpsichord, built by Christian Vater in Hanover in 1720. That is a rather unlikely choice; no details are mentioned, but I assume it has two manuals. It is certainly a fine instrument, but I would have preferred an Italian harpsichord, and an alternation with organ and (if desired) a fortepiano. I could imagine that at some time, a complete recording will appear on Brilliant Classics, specialised in complete editions of keyboard music. My points of criticism notwithstanding, this disc deserves to be welcomed. Simonetta Heger is a fine player, who succeeds in bringing about the qualities of these sonatas. Lovers of 18th-century keyboard music will certainly enjoy this recording.

Johan van Veen ( 2020)

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