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Europa Galante
Dir: Fabio Biondi
rec: November 2004, Parma, Fondazione Teatro Regio (Auditorium Paganini)
Virgin Classics - 3 63430 2 (© 2007) (53'38")

Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805): Symphony in d minor, op. 12,4 'La casa del diavolo'; Giuseppe DEMACHI (1732-after 1791): Sinfonia in F 'Le campane di Roma'; Carlo MONZA (c1735-1801): Sinfonia detta 'La tempesta di mare' (ed. F. Biondi); Giovanni Battista SAMMARTINI (1700/01-1775): Overture (Sinfonia) in g minor (J-C 57); Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741): Sinfonia in C 'Improvisata' (RV 802)

"Improvisata" is the title Vivaldi has given to his Sinfonia in C which opens this disc. It is the way Vivaldi spelled the Italian word "improvvisata", which means 'surprise'. Its use as the title for the disc as a whole may refer to the fact that most compositions in the programme contain surprising effects which the composers used to express what the titles of their works indicate.

These titles don't indicate "programme music". As Adélaïde de Place writes in the booklet, there is a difference between "descriptive music" and "programme music", but that difference isn't always very clear. One could say that programme music is a musical account of a series of events, whereas descriptive music is an imitation of phenomena, like bird singing, a battle or a storm. From this perspective one could say that Vivaldi's famous concertos, generally known as The Four Seasons, is more descriptive than programmatic. And that is also the case with the compositions on this disc.

It seems Vivaldi's Sinfonia in C isn't so much descriptive as merely exploring the possibilities to create a surprise. Surprising it certainly is: although the first movement's indication is 'allegro' it contains several slow sections. One of these is the very first, which is followed by a fiery fast section which contains a short solo for the violin. Somewhat later the oboes join the ensemble. The result is a strongly contrasting movement, both in tempo and in dynamics.

The next work is the Overture (Sinfonia) in g minor by Giovanni Battista Sammartini. It doesn't have a title, so one wonders why it was included in the programme. But its place on the disc suggests it is played here, because Sammartini is the link between the baroque era of which Vivaldi was a representative, and the next composers in the programme which belong to the classical period. Sammartini isn't exactly a household name and his music isn't very often played in concerts or on disc, but he was a very important figure in the development of music. He spent his whole life in his native city of Milan, and here famous composers visited him, like Johann Christian Bach, Gluck and Mozart. His music was widely known in Europe and had great influence on the emergency of the classical style. Haydn recognised his debt to Sammartini in his development as a composer of symphonies. The andante gets a beautiful lyrical performance here, whereas the last movement is full of strong dynamic accents.

Of the next three composers only Boccherini is well-known. But I assume very few will ever have heard the name of Carlo Monza. He is closely associated with Sammartini in that he was also from Milan, and succeeded Sammartini twice: first in 1768 as organist of the ducal court when Sammartini became maestro di cappella, and again in 1775 when Sammartini died and Monza was appointed as his successor. He later also became organist and maestro di cappella of Milan Cathedral. He was succesful as a composer of operas and of sacred music. In his Sinfonia detta 'La tempesta di mare' - a title Vivaldi also used a couple of times - he depicts a storm at sea, mostly in the first movement. It begins quietly, but then a crescendo announces the storm, and then horns enter, later joined by the oboes. The phenomenon of crescendi and diminuendi is mostly attributed to the Mannheim School, but it is more likely Italian composers like Monza were influenced here by Niccolò Jommelli, who could be considered the true "inventor" of these effects. The first movement is followed without interruption by a beautiful lyrical andante. The work closes with a lively allegro assai.

Boccherini is mainly known for his quintets and his cello concertos. As a composer of symphonies he receives much less attention. Even period instrument orchestras which regularly perform classical symphonies hardly ever play one of his. The best-known of these is the symphony recorded here. In the tracklist it is referred to as "Symphony No. 6". I don't know where that comes from: it is the fourth of a series of six, published in 1771 as opus 12. The nickname, "La casa del diavolo", is not authentic: it has been given to it, because of its last movement. "Introduced by a recollection of the opening bars of the first movement, its subtitle tells us that it is constructed as a 'chaconne representing the Underworld, composed in imitation of M. Gluck in his Festin de pierre'". This movement portrays the destruction of Don Juan and his descent into hell. The other movements, in particular the first - andante sostenuto, followed by allegro assai - are quite theatrical too. The theatrical effects are brilliantly realised by Europa Galante.

The last composer on the programme is again unknown: Giuseppe Demachi was born in Italy and spent the first stage of his career there in several capacities. In 1771 he settled in Geneva, where also some of his compositions were published. In 1791 he was giving concerts in London, where he also died at an unknown date. Demachi "evokes the bells of Rome, whose sounds clash and mingle on violin and flute". These effects can be mainly heard in the first movement, but also in the rhythms of the second movement. The frequent passages in all movements where the strings have to play pizzicato are certainly meant to depict bells as well.

The concept of this disc may not be particularly original, the choice of music certainly is. The lesser-known composers on this disc all deserve more attention, as there works presented here are interesting and of good quality. The instrumental music from Italy of the second half of the 18th century is rather neglected anyway, so any recording with this kind of repertoire is most welcome. I am impressed by the performances by Europa Galante, which mainly plays music from the late baroque period - roughly from 1690 to 1750 - but it seems to feel equally at home in music of the classical period. Especially the playing of the wind section deserves praise. The only thing which is not very impressive about this disc is its playing time of less than 54 minutes.

Johan van Veen (© 2008)

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