At a time when the recorder was losing ground in most countries in
Europe it was still a popular instrument in Naples. One of the most
prolific composers of music for the recorder was Francesco Mancini.
Although he was mainly known for his operas in his own time it is
mostly his works for the recorder that are performed nowadays.
Mancini was born and died in Naples, and hardly ever left the city,
except for an occasional trip to Rome. He was educated as an organist
and it is in this capacity that he worked from 1704 to 1708 in the
royal chapel. In the latter year he became a deputy of the maestro
di cappella, Alessandro Scarlatti. When Scarlatti died in 1725
Mancini succeeded him. In 1720 he had already been appointed director
of the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto. He composed many operas
and oratorios, and also contributed to the various genres of sacred
music. His compositions of the latter kind found a wide dissemination
across Europe. Very little of it has been documented on disc. An exception
is a disc with his Missa Septimus (review).
His sacred music shows that Mancini was a master of counterpoint,
and that comes to the fore in his instrumental works as well. His
output in this genre is small: two harpsichord toccatas, 12 sonatas
for recorder and bc (recorded by Ensemble Tripla Concordia; review)
and the 12 sonatas for recorder, strings and bc which are the subject
of this set. These sonatas were never printed and have been preserved
in a manuscript which is known as the Manoscritto di Napoli 1725.
It comprises 24 compositions of this kind by various composers: Alessandro
Scarlatti, Francesco Barbella, Roberto Valentino (born Robert Valentine
in London), Domenico Sarri (or Sarro) and Giovanni Battista Mele.
The numbers of the concertos follow the order in the manuscript.
The title page of the manuscript refers to concertos, but
the individual pieces are called sonatas. Apparently there
was no fundamental difference between the two genres. These 'concertos'
are in no way comparable to the solo concerto which we know from the
oeuvre of Vivaldi. These are ensemble pieces in which the recorder
is primus inter pares. The sonatas are in four or five movements
and follow largely the pattern of the Corellian sonata da chiesa.
The concertos by Mancini not only show his skills in the realm of
counterpoint; they also include dramatic elements which reflect his
capabilities as a composer of music for the theatre. In some sonatas
the opening movement turns into the next without interruption, causing
a strong and sudden contrast. Some movements have a marked theatrical
character, such as the larghetto from the Concerto No.
19 and the lento from his Concerto No. 20 with
its sequence of staccato chords. The Concerto No. 1 begins
with a moderato of great lyricism, which is followed by a highly expressive
and dramatic grave. Another striking example of expression
is the Concerto No. 13. These concertos do not make for easy-listening;
it is telling that no fewer than eight of the 12 are in minor keys.
The scoring is for recorder, two violins and basso continuo. Only
two concertos include a part for viola. Most of the pieces are played
with one instrument per part; in the concertos 8, 10 and 14 the number
of violins is extended to six. I can't see any reason for that,
and it has a negative effect on the balance between the recorder and
the strings. In some movements the guitar is used as a percussion
instrument, and in the last movement of the Concerto No. 17
- which concludes the second disc - percussion is added. That is very
odd: I cannot see any musical justification for that, and it seems
very unlikely that in music like this - which is basically chamber
music - percussion was used at that time.
However, these are minor cavils in relation what is a very fine production.
Thanks to Brilliant Classics we now have all of Mancini’s works for
the recorder on disc. This is music of excellent quality, and the
performances are enjoyable. Most important of all, the expression
and the dramatic traits in these sonatas are well explored.
Johan van Veen