Just when you thought you'd heard every note of composer Antonio Vivaldi's vast output, Baroque specialist Fabio Biondi reveals something new from the "Red Priest." Biondi's latest recording is a purely instrumental disc exploring the descriptive sinfonia. Biondi founded the period instrument ensemble Europa Galante in 1990. Their latest recording takes its title, "Improvisata," from a short sinfonia by Vivaldi. From there Biondi builds an entire program around descriptive works from lesser-known composers like Carlo Monza and Giuseppe Demachi.
Vivaldi's "Sinfonia Improvisata" is a compact, three-minute fragment that was just discovered in 1999. This condensed concert piece actually sounds very much like a Vivaldi chamber concerto. The entire ensemble gets the opportunity to take center stage. It seems only fitting that the high-caliber performers of Europa Galante would be the first to record this piece.
Composers have always tried to write music that in some way paints a musical picture. Some program music is poetic and suggestive, but not specific. Descriptive music actually tries to recreate sounds that form a particular visual image for the listener. Composers often add titles to their pieces to enhance these pictures in our minds.
Four of the five pieces on this new release have descriptive titles, including "The Storm at Sea," or "La Tempesta di Mare," by 18th-century Italian opera composer Carlo Monza. Monza was probably a student of Giovanni Batista Sammartini, whose music is also featured on this disc. Compared to his 20 operas, Monza's instrumental output is small. This sinfonia certainly has an operatic flare. It takes us through the stages of a spring storm, starting quietly as the clouds begin to gather. A bold crescendo announces a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning. I can almost smell the fresh, spring air as a delicate, pastoral melody rises above the rain showers in the slow, second movement.
The final piece on "Improvisata" is by a composer about whom we know very little, Giuseppe Demachi. Born in Italy, he relocated to London around 1791 to become first violin in a local band. His sinfonia "Le campane di Roma" evokes the bells of Rome. Those bells peal throughout the first movement, sometimes clanging loudly, other times ringing ever so slightly as they mingle with the violin and the flute. Europa Galante delivers a crisp, skillful performance of this piece--each instrument from violin to horn is clearly audible, even in the large orchestral passages.
With this new release, Fabio Biondi delivers an answer to the ever-looming question, "Is classical music dead?" Of course not, he seems to be saying: there is so much yet to be discovered. Three of the five works on this new disc have never before been recorded. Was it worth waiting a few hundred years to hear them? Absolutely!