The name Giuseppe Sarti will be unfamiliar to many, and sadly his name seems to have fallen into obscurity. Welcome indeed is this 6-cd set by the enterprising Italian label Tactus, resurrecting his complete chamber music and keyboard works. Some of his operas and liturgical works have already seen the light of day on CD, but the music on offer here must surely be a first.
Known primarily as a composer of serious and comic opera, Sarti was born in Faenza in 1729. At the age of ten he went to Bologna to study with the composer and educator Padre Martini. He then became organist at the Duomo of Faenza. As his skill in the art of opera composition increased, he attracted the attention of King Frederick V of Denmark and he was invited to become kapellmeister and director of the Opera Theatre there. His stay in Denmark came to an abrupt end with a political dispute when his patron, the new King Christian, was deposed. All of the king’s associates were persecuted and Sarti was given eight days to leave Copenhagen. Bags packed he travelled to London, where he filled his time giving music lessons. On his return to Italy in 1779, he was appointed maestro di capella of Milan Cathedral. Here he composed operas and liturgical music, and taught - one of his pupils was none other than Cherubini. In 1784 he travelled to St. Petersburg at the invitation of Catherine the Great, on his way meeting Haydn and Mozart. He stayed there for seventeen years. However, life eventually took its toll, and he decided finally to return to Italy, unfortunately dying in Berlin on the way in 1802.
What we have here is Sarti’s complete works for keyboard, either featuring as a solo instrument, in chamber music with violin or flute, or fulfilling the role of basso continuo. The gathering together of this body of works has not been easy for the musicians involved. The Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord were catalogued by Sarti himself and allotted opus numbers. The Sonatas for Flute and Basso Continuo were published in Paris as a single collection. The solo keyboard works have been more problematic in not offering the players such ease of accessibility. They were not catalogued by Sarti or arranged in any sort of sequence. Chiara Cattani, the keyboard player in the recordings and writer of the liner-notes explains that these compositions were scattered throughout the libraries of Europe, and the gathering together of the manuscripts proved an onerous task. She also speculates that there may be manuscripts languishing in obscurity in St. Petersburg, where Sarti spent the years 1784-1801. It is to be hoped that if there are, these will see the light of day at some point.
Of interest is the fact that six different keyboard instruments have been used in these recordings. The choice of instruments was indeed specified by Sarti himself, so Cattani has made no attempt to adapt the works to be accommodated to a single instrument. The instruments used are: a French-type double manual harpsichord; an Italian-model single manual harpsichord; an organ, a clavichord and two fortepianos - one early 19th Century, the other from 1830.
The keyboard sonatas consist of short movements, some with two, some three. There are also single movement sonatas. Those with three do not conform to the conventional fast-slow-fast template, and neither are they in sonata form, rather they follow the Baroque convention. Most are in major keys. Sarti did not concern himself with cataloging these works or allotting opus numbers, and one notices from time to time an element of recycling. Furthermore, it was the composer’s intention to write pieces for entertainment rather than to showcase virtuosity.
Two CDs are devoted to the solo keyboard works. On CD 4 three different instruments are used - two harpsichords and a clavichord. On CD 5 Cattani uses two fortepianos and an organ. This is a bonus in that the listener is treated to a variety of different timbres and contrasts. I love Cattani’s playing which is crisply incisive, bright and fresh. She employs rhythmically buoyant tempi, and the instruments she uses confer brightness in the treble and richness in the bass. These are polished performances, with a diaphanous translucency. On two of the tracks on CD 4 she employs a clavichord. I don’t particularly like the sound of it, but that it purely a personal thing. The organ used on CD 5 has a distinctive timbre, and it is a beautifully-sounding instrument.
The first three CDs of the set consist of the Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord. These are generally larger-scaled works than the solo keyboard items. These eleven sonatas represent a peak in Sarti’s achievement as a chamber music composer. Apart from two sonatas, they are three movement works, in which Sarti uses sonata form in the first movements. Roberto Noferini is the violinist, with Cattani at the keyboard. The players offer compelling performances of these works. There is real energy and verve, and the engineers have managed to achieve an ideal balance between the two instruments. With intuitive shaping of phrases and well-judged rubato, the players deliver performances marked with distinction.
My only disappointment with the set is the CD devoted to works for flute and continuo. The venue is not at all sympathetic to the otherwise imaginative playing of the two musicians - this time Cattani is partnered with Silvia Moroni on flute. The harpsichord sounds recessed and distant, thus negatively impacting on the balance between the two instruments. The acoustic confers a cramped quality on the proceedings, where clarity and detail do not emerge with sufficient definition.
That said, this set has been a wonderful discovery for me, and constitutes an admirable investment for those wishing to discover this rich body of music by an almost forgotten composer. Cattani’s booklet notes - in Italian and English - are detailed and set the context well.
List of works included in this set:-
Sonata for violin and harpsichord, op.1 in E major, "Giulio Sabino ed Epponina, sonata caratteristica"
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.4, 1 in G major
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.4, 2 in A minor
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.4, 3 in F major
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.3, 1 in C major
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.3, 2 in D major
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument, op.3, 3 in B flat major
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument 1, 1758
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument 2, 1758
Sonata for violin and keyboard instrument 3, 1758
Sonata for violin and harpsichord, op.2 in E flat major, "Intreccio di opere d'different idea favorite"
Sinfonia for violin and bc in D major
Sonata for harpsichord 1 in G major
Sonata for Harpsichord 2 in C major
Sonata for Harpsichord 3 in G major
Sinfonia for harpsichord in C major
Sonata for Harpsichord in D major
Sonata for Piano in D major, "Per il fortepiano"
Sonata for Piano in E flat major, "Per il fortepiano"
Sinfonia for Piano in C major
Sonata for piano in F major
Sonata for Piano in G major
Sinfonia for organ in C major
Sonata for Organ in F major, "Allegro"
Sonata for Piano in G major, "Allegro"
Sonata for flute and bc 1 in G major
Sonata for flute and bc 2 in C major
Sonata for flute and bc 3 in G major
Sonata for flute and bc 4 in G minor
Sonata for flute and bc 5 in F major
Sonata for flute and bc 6 in D major