GIUSEPPE SAMMARTINI: Organ Concertos Op. 9 = Concerto I in A Major; Concerto II in F Major; Concerto III in G Major; Concerto IV in B-flat Major – Enrico Zanovello, organ/ Archicembalo Ensemble – Discantica 55, 63:01 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
What a difference five years makes—or so it would seem. Giuseppe Sammartini (1695-1750), older brother of Giovanni (1700-1775), was a typical Baroque composer-performer, while long-lived Giovanni is credited with being one of the fathers of the Classical symphony. Born ten years after Bach and passing in the same year, Giuseppe lived and worked from 1727 onward in Handel’s London, where Italian musicians were greatly appreciated. In his own day Sammartini was far more famous as a performer on the oboe than as a composer, hailed as the greatest oboist in England, though he produced quite a number of sonatas, solos, and concerti, including these rather Handelian organ concerti. In fact, while he produced only four keyboard concertos “in the last days of his life,” Sammartini wrote twenty-four concerti grossi, twenty-four flute sonatas, and thirty trio sonatas, according to the notes to the present recording. (Interestingly, he wrote far fewer works for his own instrument, though the E-flat Concerto is one of his better-known pieces.)
In London, Sammartini worked as oboist of the King’s Theatre under Handel’s direction and later became director of chamber music for the Prince of Wales. His unofficial tutelage under Handel influenced his compositional style, as evidenced by the Op. 9 Organ Concerti, published around 1754 by the firm of John Walsh, Handel’s publisher. Handel introduced the organ concerto as a form, inserting these works as interludes in his oratorios. Most employ an orchestra of stings augmented by one or two oboes and bassoon in the continuo. By contrast, Sammartini’s concerti are scored for an orchestra of strings alone plus continuo. The notes to the recording (written by organist Zanovello) point out that “‘Commercial’ reasons must have prompted Walsh to choose the harpsichord as the concertante instrument [the published score lists these as concertos for harpsichord or organ], but for aesthetic reasons, we have chosen a chamber organ for this recording, which certainly offers a greater variety of colour possibilities,” not to mention establishes ready connections with the style of Handel’s concerti.
As the notes further state, these connections are most obvious in the faster movements, which sound Handelian indeed, though I’m not sure I buy into the argument offered here that the slow movements incorporate elements of the newly developing style galant. Charming they are, but it seems to me they have charm fully consistent with an earlier aesthetic not far removed from the equally charming slow movements of Handel.
After an Andante introduction harking back to pre-Vivaldi concerto form, in the Allegro assai of Concerto I Sammartini shows himself to be an efficient contrapuntist. The other concerti are in the usual three movements. The snappy first movements and dancing finales are contrasted, as in Handel, with more inward slow movements, that in Concerto III being especially melancholy if not downright anguished, thanks to a series of heavily dissonant chords at the start. All concerti feature cadenzas written by Sammartini himself except for Concerto II, where the cadenza is marked ad libidum, allowing for the kind of semi-improvisational showmanship that Handel was famous for. In short, no invidious comparisons here: if you like Handel’s organ concerti, you should enjoy these as well.
Archembalo Ensemble, founded by Enrico Zanovello in 1989, is dedicated to the instrumental music of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Its members have experience playing in other prestigious European chamber groups such as Concerto Köln and Les Musiciens du Louvre, and that experience shows. These are beautifully gauged performances, lively and engaging in the outer movements, affecting in the slow ones, and beautifully played by all hands as well. Thanks, probably, to the recording venue, Chiesa di S. Donato in Vicenza, plus fairly close miking, the five string players and continuo harpsichordist sound almost ample enough to be a chamber orchestra. The recorded bass is especially powerful yet clean. This is a worthy addition to the ever-growing Sammartini discography.
A master pianist from the 1900s