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Exploring Music: : Quite Satisfactory

The MHS Review 388 Vol. 11 No.10, 1987

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David M. Greene


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The Rossini wind quintets used to turn up with fair frequency in the early days of LP, an era now drawing to a sudden close. I recall versions on L'Oiseau-Lyre, Period, and Classic Editions. The last survivor seems to be a single example recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra first-desk men 20-odd years ago in a miscellany still available from Columbia Special Products. There is a fairly good reason for this state of affairs.

Rossini's stock was way down 30 or 40 years ago. Of all his operas--the works on which his reputation had been made-one encountered only Il barbiere di Siviglia in highly inauthentic performances. On records and in the concert hall one heard a few overtures (the Allegro from William Tell accompanied the Lone Ranger on radio) and occasionally the song La danza­. There was a tendency among the pundits to snicker when Rossini's name came up. Only an occasional musicologist knew that he had written non-operatic music. There was a set of five string quartets, for example, that were said to represent very bad string-quartet writing. After all, what could one expect of a lightweight Italian opera-composer anyway?

Among the more knowledgeable musical researchers was the composer-pianist Alfredo Casella, one of whose missions in life was to rediscover the glories of early Italian music. At some point during the 1930s (perhaps while he was conductor of the Boston Pops!) he discovered in the Library of Congress a set of six manuscript sonatas for two violins, cello, and con­trabass viol signed by Rossini, who noted that he had, at the age of 12, and before he had had a single lesson in composition, dashed them off in three days, to be played by himself, two of his cousins, and a bass-­playing sponsor. Casella was much taken with these little works, and, despite fail­ing health, managed to get his edition of the third of them published during World War II. In turn, there was a rash of recor­dings of it in the early LP days. ­

critical edition of Rossini's music. He decided to begin with the sonatas and the quartets, which latter he tracked down in the nearby pocket-country of San Marino. He saw immediately that the supposed string quartets were inept arrangements of the five unpublished sonatas. No one knows who the arranger was; the five were published in 1826, probably without the composer's knowledge, since he had settl­ed in Paris by then.

I am unable to find detailed information about the wind quartets. They are also ar­rangements of the sonatas published a cou­ple of years after the string-quartet ver­sions. Noel Strauss, then a New York Times critic, discovered that the arranger was the clarinetist Friedrich Berr (nee Beer). Berr (1794-1838) was born in Mannheim, but migrated to France at 16 where he rose to the directorship of the military music school and was appointed chamber player to King Louis Philippe. Though the ar­rangements lack the charm of the originals, they are quite satisfactory as wind music.

This set is filled out with the 12 Bagatelles for flute, clarinet, and horn [bas­soon on this recording] by the composer known to history as Giovanni Simone Mayr. Baptized Johann Simon, he came from Bavaria, where he was slated for the priesthood. But his musical proclivities kept getting in the way, and eventually he was persuaded by a Swiss baron to accom­pany him to Italy for serious training. Set­tling in Bergamo, where he founded the conservatory (Donizetti was his star pupil), he became the leading "Italian" opera com­poser of the generation prior to Rossini's, mingling German and Italian traditions. He wrote 68 operas as well as a great deal of church music.

Review of Members of Soni Ventorum Wind Quintet Perform Rossini and Mayr

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