SALIERI:  Piano Concerto in C.  Piano Concerto in B Flat. Les Horaces Overture.  Semiramide Overture.  XXVI Variations on La Follia di Spagna.
David Nolan, violinist/Pietro Spada, pianist/conductor; Philharmonia Orch.

ASV CD DCA 955 (F) (DDD) TT:  79:26

SALIERI:  Overtures: Cublai, gran kan de' Tartari; Angiolina; La locandiera; Falstaff. Twenty-six Variations on "La folia di Spagna." Sinfonia Veneziana. Sinfonia "Il giorno onomastico."
London Mozart Players/Matthias Bamert
Chandos CHAN 9877 (F) (DDD) TT: 65:41

Antonio Salieri's reputation may never recover from the beating it takes in Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus (and the film thereof), which perpetuates in dramatic form the legend that he poisoned Mozart, his greater rival, out of jealousy. The musicologists pooh-pooh it, as does Robin Golding in Chandos's booklet note, but it clings stubbornly. Ironically, when we actually listen to Salieri's music, we hear, not the work of an insecure hack, but the stylish craftsmanship of an esteemed artist, with a lively rhythmic sense and a Mediterranean bent for warm, dark sonorities.

Chandos and ASV's generous helpings of his music should help redress the balance. ASV's program shows him to better advantage, especially in the piano concerti; I suspect the drama inherent in the concerto form, with its opposition of soloist and orchestra, provoked Salieri to a livelier response than did purely symphonic music. The C major concerto, some rococo touches notwithstanding, is worthy to stand with Mozart's own works: the first movement occasionally veers into a similar turbulent harmony and solo figurations, while the minor-key slow movement mirrors his tragic aspect.

In Chandos's symphonic works, conversely, it's Haydn from whom Salieri seems to have learned a lesson or two, for example in the restrained forward propulsion and bubbly 6/8 Presto conclusion of the Locandiera overture. In the "Giorno onomastico" symphony, too, Haydnesque fingerprints abound: the opening triadic fanfares; the Italianate, operatic dance of solo woodwinds over pulsing strings later on; the bracing, martial scherzo; the finale's surprise swing into 6/8.

What are the shortcomings? Salieri's tunes, as in the central Andantino grazioso of the Sinfonia veneziana—really an extended tripartite Italian overture—can be pleasantly unmemorable, though he develops them with a most attractive logic. In the finale of the "onomastico," there are moments of clumsy part-writing in the strings, though they pass quickly. And Salieri's sense of proportion falls strikingly short of the Mozart model, particularly in his dogged, earnest variation movements. His treatment of the folia di Spagna dance theme is richly colored—in the embellished woodwind variation, even ingenious—but twenty-six short variations are too much of a so-so thing. The variation finale of the B-flat piano concerto is similarly flatfooted and aimless.

Both discs have their good points, but I favor ASV.  Chandos's Matthias Bamert fields a crack ensemble—the cool, clear flute and the round, fruity bassoon deserve special mention—and plays these scores alertly and with commitment. On ASV, Pietro Spada's odd, unmotivated changes of tempo occasionally confuse the Philharmonia players. But he projects the music with a lighter hand—the Horaces overture begins with a bracing lift—and finds more variety in it:  in the folia di Spagna variations, for example, his lighter chords in the trombone variation are eerier than Bamert's conventionally thicker, tenuto ones. As soloist in the concerti, Spada plays with pingy articulations and a good singing tone, though he could vary the dynamics and textures more.

Sound is fine, though again I prefer ASV's brighter, lighter sound, which reproduces with ample depth, to Chandos's typical long reverberation, which underlines the burly, robust side of Bamert's performances. Chandos also seems unwittingly to have fashioned its entire program in the key of D—a "good" key for strings and for valveless brasses, granted, but inclining to monotony over the course of the program.

S.F.V.(March 2001)