SAMMARTINI, G.B.: Symphonies J-C 4, 9, 16, 23, 36, 62 (Aradia Ensemble/ Kevin Mallon) (Naxos: 8.557298)
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Giovanni Battista Sammartini (c.1700/01-1775):
The precise date of Sammartini's birth can only beinferred from the fact that he died in 1775, when his agewas given as 74. It may be supposed that he was born inMilan, where his father Alexis Saint-Martin, to be knownin Italy as Alessio Sammartini, a French oboist, hadsettled, and it has been suggested that his mother,Gerolama de Federici, came from the Milan family ofoboists of that name. The seventh of eight children,Sammartini presumably studied with his father. His olderbrother Giuseppe, who seems to have served as an oboistfor a time in the orchestra of the Teatro Regio Ducal inMilan, from the late 1720s won a reputation for himselfin London, where he played in Handel's opera orchestrasand added significantly to the repertoire of sonatas andconcertos, his playing an inspiration, it seems, to Handel,whose favourite instrument in his earlier years had beenthe hautbois. It is not known whether Giovanni Battistaplayed the oboe or, indeed, the violin, but by the 1720she was already active as a composer, becoming maestrodi cappella of the Congregation of the Most HolySepulchre at the Jesuit church of San Fedele in 1728, aconnection he maintained for the rest of his life. He laterassumed similar positions with confraternities in anumber of Milan churches, well known as a churchmusician, organist and composer, and, from 1768,maestro di cappella of the ducal court in Milan.
Although Sammartini seems to have spent his entirelife in Milan or its environs, as the most distinguishedcomposer there, he associated with many leadingmusicians who visited the city or worked there. While hemay not have taught Gluck, who spent eleven years inMilan, from 1734, Sammartini certainly encouraged andinfluenced him, and in the following years exercisedsimilar influence over the music of Johann ChristianBach, who became organist at Milan cathedral in 1760,while the cellist Boccherini played under his direction.
Charles Burney, who visited Milan in 1770, describedSammartini's music as 'very ingenious, and full of thespirit and fire peculiar to that author'. Leopold Mozart, inMilan in the same year, wrote home to his wifedescribing how his son Wolfgang performed in thepresence of Maestro Sammartini and of a number of themost distinguished people, and how he amazed them.
Later in the year he was able to report the support ofSammartini, described as a true friend, after the localintrigues he suspected over the performance of his son'sfirst Milan opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. It was naturalthat Sammartini's compositions should be heard inVienna, and there is ample evidence of his contemporaryfame elsewhere. Haydn, who would surely have heardworks by Sammartini in Vienna, curtly rejected thesuggestion of any such influence, yet it is clear thatSammartini had an important part to play in thedevelopment of instrumental music from the 1720s untilhis death.
An amazingly prolific composer, Sammartini wrotesome 450 vocal and instrumental works. These include67 surviving symphonies. The fact that a further 75 suchworks were ascribed to him is an indication of hisreputation. The Sammartini scholar Bathia Churgin hassuggested three stylistic periods for the composer'ssymphonies, the first from the later 1720s to about 1739,the second to 1758 and the final period from then until1774, based on other dated works, collections andreferences, and on stylistic characteristics. The system ofnumbering, J-C, is taken from the names of NewellJenkins and Bathia Churgin, scholars particularlyassociated with research into and revival of Sammartini'swork. His activity as a composer over a period of someforty years reflects a number of the changes taking place,as baroque techniques gave way to those associated withthe classical. Whatever Sammartini's contemporaryinfluence on this process, he may be seen as a pioneer ininstrumental music, a precursor of the Mannheim school,and, indeed, of Haydn.
The symphonies included in the present recordingare framed by two works dated to about 1750. The othersbelong to the earlier period of Sammartini's career. TheSymphony in A major, J-C 62, is scored for two trumpetsand strings and survives in seven eighteenth-centurycopies, suggesting its contemporary diffusion. Six ofthese offer the finale listed as IIIa, while the remainingcopy, from Genoa, ends with the minuet movement listedas IIIb. The opening Presto centres first on the tonic triad,with a due modulation to the dominant and adevelopment, before the return of the principal theme inrecapitulation. The A minor second movement, markedAndante e pianissimo, is chromatic in character,introducing original harmonies. The first finale follows asimilar pattern to that of the first movement, while thealternative final Allegro, scored for horns instead oftrumpets, as in some copies is the rest of the symphony,offers a movement in the form of a minuet.
Sammartini's Symphony in C minor, J-C 9, scored,as are the other early symphonies, for strings withcontinuo, is one of seven in minor keys. This minor keyadds an air of dramatic tension to the first movement,with its dotted rhythms, written for three parts, unisonviolins, violas and bass instruments. This mood ofurgency is dispelled in the E flat major secondmovement, where the melodic burden is carriedprincipally by the first violin, accompanied by secondviolin, viola and continuo. The final Allegro reverts tothree parts, with unison violins, in 3/8, again propelledforward by its accompanying rhythm that continues inaccompaniment of the violins, which have the melodythroughout.
The Symphony in D major, J-C 16, scored in threeparts for violin, viola and bass, opens with a forthrightAlla breve movement, bringing characteristic dottedrhythms. The B minor second movement, markedAndante sempre piano, again allows the first violin themelody and its embellishment. There is a lively 3/8 finalmovement.
The energetic activity of the violins in the Symphonyin F major, J-C 36, with its unified opening and in fourinstrumental parts, recalls the comment of Burney, whowas less pleased with this busy feature of Sammartini'swriting, at least when he heard the performance of a Massin Milan during his visit to the city. The D minor secondmovement provides the expected contrast, starting withthe violins in unison, from which they briefly diverge,before returning to three-part texture for the bulk of themovement. The symphony ends with a vigorous 3/8Allegro assai, much of it in three parts.
Dotted rhythms mark the opening Allegro of theSymphony in D minor, J-C 23, varied with tripletfiguration. The movement is scored for first and secondviolins with continuo. The pastoral F major slowmovement is again in the aria form used by Vivaldi inmany of his concertos and in a lilting 12/8. The stronglydotted rhythms and triplets of the first movement returnin the final 3/4 Presto.
The Symphony in C major, J-C 4, from about 1750,is scored for two horns and strings. The openingAllegrissimo is in sonata form, with both sectionsrepeated. The short G major slow movment, markedAndante e affettuoso and scored for strings alone, isfollowed by a final Allegrissimo minuet-type movementwith considerable rhythmic variety.Keith Anderson