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Giovanni Battista MARTINI (1706 - 1784): Azione Teatrale 1726, Richiami degli ambulanti al mercato di Bologna

Angela Troilo (Grilletta), contraltoa; Vincenzo Di Donato (Serpillo), tenora; Giacomo Contro (Melissa), bassa
Coro da Camera Euridiceb; Ensemble di Strumenti Antichi Circe
Dir: Pier Paolo Scattolin

rec: July 2017, Bologna, Eremo di Ronzano
Tactus - TC 701307 ( 2020) (60'48")
Liner-notes: E/IT; no lyrics
Cover & track-list
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Azione Teatrale, 1726; Richiami degli ambulanti al mercato di Bologna ( Capelett', martuff; Cess, cess chi vol dal cess; Cessi bianchi; Chi vol di curbi; Clur, clur; Di luvin dulz; Frittolin, raviolin; Grida di venditori (ed. Pier Paolo Scatolin); I balbujen cald'e grus; L'esca bona; Mela cotta oh gl'en pur bon; Pess, pess; Sulfanar donn'; Zaletti e castagnaz)

Sara Dallolio, Stefano Fanton, Angela Troilo, recorderb; Daniele Salvatore, bass flutea; Irene Pizzi, Sivia Tecchio, violinb; Silvia Gubertib, Perikli Pitea, Gianni Sebartolib, viola da gamba; Federica Pasquali, cellob; Giovanni Fini, archlute; Marcello Rossi Corradini, harpsichord; Mirco Mungari, percussionb

Every music lover knows Giovanni Battista Martini, at least under his 'nickname' Padre Martini. He appears in every music encyclopedia and in every music history. He was a man of many qualities: an encyclopedic mind, a scholar of physical and mathematical sciences, a music theorist, teacher and composer, who was in close contact with many colleagues of his and of a younger generation. They came for advice to Bologna, the city of his birth and death, which he hardly ever left, or sent their compositions to him for comment. He was also an avid collector of music, both in manuscript and in printed editions. The library of the convent of San Francesco, where he lived, and which was later transferred to the conservatory, comprises 17,000 volumes, which is largely due to Martini.

The ever critical Charles Burney wrote about him: "Upon so short an acquaintance I never liked any man more; and I felt as little reserve with him after a few hours conversation, as with an old friend or beloved brother; it was impossible for confidence to be more cordial, especially between two persons whose pursuits were the same."

Unfortunately, as is so often the case with music theorists, his music is little known and seldom performed and recorded. He shares this fate with the likes of Leopold Mozart and Johann Joseph Fux. The latter's output is in the process of being reassessed, and we may see one day the same happening to Martini's oeuvre. Some of his keyboard pieces and instrumental works have been recorded, and a few vocal works are also available on disc.

His oeuvre is quite sizeable; according to New Grove around 1,500 works have been preserved. His output comprises a few oratorios, a large amount of liturgical music, including around 32 masses, secular vocal works (music for the stage, cantatas and duets), instrumental works, such as sinfonias and solo concertos, as well as a large number of keyboards works (sonatas, versetti). The disc under review here presents specimens of two parts of his oeuvre that are little known.

The disc opens with the Azione Teatrale, the first of five intermezzi Martini has left. It does not come with a proper title, but it is based on a libretto with the title Melissa contenta that was performed in Venice in 1708 with music by either Antonio Lotti or Francesco Gasparini. The libretto came to Bologna, where it was used as a series of intermezzi during the performance of the opera pasticcio Lo scherno degli dei. The plot is summarized as follows in the booklet: "Serpillo (tenor), a fop and formerly a soldier, surrenders to the courtship of an old woman, Melissa (bass), purely out of material interest, and although in the meantime he approaches the young, cunning Griletta (male alto) and gives presents to her, the erotic avidity of Melissa and his own financial avidity win the game and lead to a 'happy' ending". The scoring may look a little odd, to say the least, but apart from the fact that the singers on the stage were often exclusively male - in particular in the lands that belonged to the Church - it is very likely that this piece was performed at the convent by friars. Piero Mioli, in his liner-notes, refers to a book on the history of the theatre in Bologna, which mentions that during Carnival comedies were staged in the convent of San Francesco.

The fun may escape the listener, as this disc comes without lyrics. There is a link to the Tactus site where they should be available, but I have not found them. For those, who don't understand Italian, it would probably make little difference, as the lyrics of Tactus discs that are available, mostly omit English translations. That is a bit of a shame, as musically speaking intermezzi usually cannot be counted among the best works in the theatrical department. That said, even without lyrics, this piece is nice to listen to, and there is no doubt that Martini was a good composer, even in a genre that was certainly not the core of his compositional activities. It is also due to the fine singing of the three soloists, who are accompanied by a basso continuo group of viola da gamba, archlute, harpsichord and - quite curious - a bass flute.

Padre Martini was known for his knowledge of counterpoint, whose importance he vehemently defended at a time that this was increasingly considered out of fashion. In his time he experienced the rise and dissemination of the galant style in which melody was the foundation of music. Martini's preferences come to the fore in the fact that he composed around 800 canons, most of them in Latin, but also about one hundred in Bolognese dialect. This recording offers thirteen from a set of 26 with the title I richiami degli ambulanti al mercato di Bologna - "Calls of pedlars at the market of Bologna". This can be considered part of what was known as a special genre, called 'street cries'. Especially pieces of this kind by English renaissance composers have been recorded. However, stylistically these canons are different; the form of the canon is rather sophisticated in itself. The canons are performed here by a choir and an ensemble of instruments, consisting of recorders, violins, viole da gamba, cello, archlute, harpsichord and percussion. Those who are especially interested in people's culture may regret the lack of lyrics here, but musically that does not matter much. The music is enjoyable, and both the singing and playing are fine.

This is not a disc I would rank among the indispensable, but it is nice that we get to know here a side of Padre Martini that is little-known. It helps to complete and correct the picture of this man in books and encyclopedias. Apparently, the scholar had an open mind which made him receptive to the culture of the lower classes. This disc should also be an incentive to look further into the oeuvre of a man who is strongly underrated as a composer in his own right.

Johan van Veen ( 2022)

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