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Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700 - 1775): "Sonate per clavicembalo"

Susanna Piolanti, harpsichord

rec: April 2015, Ravenna, Studio Piolanti
Tactus - TC 701902 ( 2017) (64'33")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in C [3]; Sonata in C [4]; Sonata in D [2]; Sonata in E flat [1]; Sonata in G [1]; Sonata in G [3]; Sonata in G; Sonata in B flat [4]

Sources: [1] A Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord compos'd by Sigr. Jozzi, St. Martini of Milan, Alberti, Agrell. Book I, [1761]; [2] A Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord compos'd by Sigr. Jozzi, St. Martini of Milan, Alberti, Agrell. Book II, [1762]; [3] A Collection of Lessons for the Harpsichord compos'd by Sigr. Jozzi, St. Martini of Milan, Alberti, Agrell. Book III, [1764]; [4] Six select Sonatas for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano Composed by Galuppi, Mazzinghi, Martini & Jozzi, [1765]

Giovanni Battista Sammartini "was a leading figure in the development of the Classical style", according to Bathian Churgin in New Grove. One wouldn't guess, if one looks at the number of recordings. ArkivMusic lists 36 recordings; that seems not too bad. However, only a relatively small number of them is entirely devoted to compositions by Sammartini. If we confine ourselves to performances on period instruments, the harvest is rather meagre. There is still much work to do in order to create a more complete picture of a composer, who had an unmistakable influence on Haydn in the genre of the symphony.

Sammartini was the son of a French oboist, who had emigrated to Italy. Giovanni Battista 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.

The present disc sheds light on what is probably 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.

Sammartini's oeuvre is generally divided into three different periods: the first shows a mixture of late-baroque and early classical elements; the second is called 'pre-classical/galant' and the last period shows a fully developed classical style. Most of the sonatas which Susanna Piolanti selected for her recording, are probably from the period 1730 to 1750, and therefore largely belong to the galant period. The fact that all the sonatas are in major keys bears witness to that. The sonatas recorded here were intended for amateurs; the dates of publication show that such music was still popular at the time, that the classical style already manifested itself. The disc closes with a Sonata in G, which has been preserved in manuscript and is probably the latest work of this programme.

It is also the technically most demanding. It is in one movement (presto) and includes passages, which require the crossing of the hands. All the sonatas are - as was the custom at the time - in two parts. The thematic material is given to the right hand, whereas the role of the left hand is restricted to that of an accompaniment. It often plays repeated bass patterns, known as 'drum basses'. As one may expect in music for amateurs, there are hardly any harmonic experiments. Most notable are some episodes with chromaticism in the allegro from the Sonata in D from the collection of 1762.

It is interesting that the edition of 1765 mentions the fortepiano as an alternative to the harpsichord. That attests to the early use of this instrument in England. The liner-notes point out that these sonatas can also be played at the organ. Susanna Piolanti confines herself to the harpsichord; she plays an instrument with one manual built in 1988, based on a harpsichord by Vincenzo Sodi from 1782. It seems the right instrument for this repertoire, although - considering that these sonatas were published in London and clearly intended for the international market - another instrument could have been used in alternation. That would have resulted in more variety in sound.

These sonatas are not of the category of pieces one can't do without. They are not fundamentally different from what was produced in large numbers at the time. But they are good for a little more than an hour of entertainment, thanks also to Ms Piolanti's fine playing. Unless you are a diehard harpsichord aficionado, you should probably listen to a couple of sonatas at a time. In any case, it is enjoyable that this disc contributes to our knowledge of a composer, who still awaits to be fully appreciated.

Johan van Veen ( 2018)

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