Fabio Biondi / Europa Galante

Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli

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Leave it to Fabio Biondi to take a relatively "new" work of Antonio Vivaldi never before recorded and build something exciting and thoroughly relevant around it. Virgin Classics' Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli features Vivaldi's plucky Sinfonia Improvisata, RV 802, a fragmentary work that was discovered only in 1999; this appears to be its first recording. As it lasts only three-and-a-half minutes, one could fill it out with other Vivaldi sinfonias and therefore duplicate dozens of other recordings. Instead, Biondi has taken account of the turbulent and highly pictorial character of the short Vivaldi work and has located a selection of similar pieces that complement it well. Most extraordinary among them is the sinfonia La tempesta di mare by mega-obscure Italian Carlo Monza and a cheerful, vibrant symphony by Giuseppe Demachi, La campane di Roma -- decorative, highly programmatic pieces from the eighteenth century that have never seen the light of day.

They might never again get performances as good as these. Europa Galante has attained just the right balance for a period orchestra in achieving, for its modest size, a relatively big orchestral sound. Virgin's recording is amazingly lifelike as well, in that instruments such as the lute and the string basses remain clearly audible even in dense ensemble passages. This is particularly telling in the Monza symphony, which is so steeped in Stürm und Drang as to practically define the genre, and in Boccherini's colorful, Spanish-accented symphony La casa del Diavolo (The House of the Devil, and sounding like it). The weakest of the works here isn't very weak at all, a G minor symphony of Giovanni Battista Sammartini that, surprisingly, has the same intensity of expression and ferocious rhythmic involvement as the other works here. Biondi should get kudos just for locating a Sammartini symphony that's actually worth reviving, but he achieves a great deal more than that in Improvisata: Sinfonie con titoli; it is one of the most exciting and engaging discs of eighteenth century instrumental music to come along in some time. If AMG could award six stars in a review, this disc would earn them.

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