Notes and Editorial Reviews
One of the most distinguished figures of the Classical period, the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805) was revered by 18th-century listeners and musicians for the charm, elegance and lyrical beauty of his music. Although his legacy has been undervalued in modern times, this new 37 CD box set, the most comprehensive on the market, invites listeners to rediscover the distinctive musical voice and graceful style that won Boccherini acclaim during his own lifetime.
The composer’s famed chamber works are explored in particular detail: a broad survey of the string quintets highlights the warmth and sophistication that listeners have found so appealing in Boccherini’s music, and the oboe, piano and guitar quintets (including the evocative ‘Fandango’ Guitar Quintet) showcase his imaginative handling of instrumental and tonal colour.
Boccherini’s prodigious talent as a cellist is apparent in the virtuosic cello sonatas • and concertos, which call for an array of dazzling instrumental techniques, while the Stabat Mater is one of just a handful of vocal works that he wrote during his career. • Also included are two discs of mature symphonies, less ground-breaking than those of his contemporaries Mozart and Haydn but equally compelling for their expressive melodies subtle innovations.
Over these 37 discs, Boccherini’s works are given outstanding readings by specialists in 18th-century repertoire, with a number of performances on period instruments. The collection is a testament to the enduring charm of the Italian composer’s music, and listeners will cherish the opportunity to rediscover and explore it in greater depth.
• The most comprehensive and wide- ranging Boccherini box set on the market, spanning both major and lesser-known works.
• Featuring performances on period instru- ments by specialists in 18th-centur y music and others like: New Berlin Chamber Orchestra, Michael Erxleben, Accademia i Filarmonici di Verona, Enrico Bronzi, Lajos Le?ncses, Parisii Quartet, Eros Roselli, La Magnifica Comunita?, Ilario Gregoletto, Ensemble Claviere, Petersen Quartet, Franco Angeleri, Enrico Gatti, Galimathias Musicum, Luigi Puxeddu, Federico Bracalente, Claudio Lapolla, Francesco Lattuada. Francesco Ferrarini, Barbara Vignudelli, Orchestra da Camera ‘Benedetto Marcello’, Flavio Emilio Scogna.
Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:
These are 1992 recordings that originally circulated on Capriccio and have been licensed for reissue to the budget label Phoenix. They were reviewed by Brian Robins back in
29:5 when they were released as part of a larger 10-CD Boccherini box containing a hefty helping of the composer’s chamber works, but due to the volume of material, he didn’t say much specifically about these symphonies. I suppose one must really have to have an appetite for Boccherini to consume his music in such supersized portions, for his works have long measured low on the calories scale and been deemed not likely to satisfy one’s hunger for any length of time.
Unfortunately, critical opinion, even when wrong, sometimes sticks, and in Boccherini’s case, to no small degree, it has. He has been the butt of many a disparaging remark, one of the unkindest dating back to the 19th century when he was saddled with the sobriquet “Haydn’s wife.” That was as unfair and unhelpful a brickbat then as it is now when it comes to elucidating the composer’s weaknesses as well as his strengths.
As a highly accomplished cellist, Boccherini counted among his greatest strengths his furthering of cello technique and his liberating of the cello from its traditional role as a continuo or harmonic bass reinforcing instrument. This is attested to particularly in his novel quintets employing two cellos, but also in his numerous string quartets, cello sonatas, and cello concertos.
His symphonies—28 of them—are fewer and not as innovative. It’s primarily in this field that Boccherini is found wanting when held up against Haydn, but the comparison is not entirely apt. Culturally, Haydn is a transitional figure, a man-about-court during his long and fruitful relationship with the Esterhazy family, but also a man of the world, twice traveling to London where concerts featuring his symphonies were sold-out events. But Haydn the master was also, in a sense, Haydn the slave, his adoring audiences clamoring for ever more dazzling works on a grand scale. He had to fulfill the supply side of the supply-and-demand compact.
Boccherini never fully made that transition to public artist. All of his symphonies were written between 1771 and 1782 for the orchestra of the Spanish Infante, Don Luis, in whose court Boccherini served as chamber musician and composer, and when Luis died in 1783, Boccherini took the same position in the court of King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia.
These works are crafted on a smaller scale for more modest forces, as befits the setting for which they were written; though they’re all in the classical four-movement layout with a Minuet in second or third position, in style of writing they retain some of the characteristics of the sinfonia-type symphonies that look back to a slightly earlier era. Sonata-allegro form, where it exists, is not as clearly defined as it is in Haydn and early Beethoven, and especially in some of the stylized dance gestures, one detects a French accent, perhaps the influence of Gossec, whom Boccherini had met in Paris before taking up his position at the Spanish court.
Comparisons then with Haydn’s middle-period symphonies composed during this same timeframe, I believe, are neither particularly instructive nor just in assessing the worth of Boccherini’s music. In the main, these are buoyant, high-spirited scores—even the minor-key ones—perfectly crafted for their purpose as essentially formal palace entertainments. Of their type, Boccherini’s symphonies are of a very high quality and repay the listener with much pleasure.
The New Berlin Chamber Orchestra is a modern-instrument ensemble, numbering, according to the group photo in the booklet, 13 players including Michael Erxleben, who plays first-chair violin and doubles as conductor.
If you’re a real Boccherini glutton, waiting for you on cpo is an eight-disc set of the complete symphonies with Johannes Goritzki leading the German Chamber Academy of Neuss. That set received a strong recommendation from Martin Anderson in
23:5. But if you prefer the meal in smaller servings, this two-disc set is ideal. Works are very stylishly played, even if not on period instruments, and there’s not a dud among them.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
" It’s one of the many ironies of classical music that Luigi Boccherini, a virtuosi cellist who wrote at least a dozen concertos (12 have survived, at any rate) on his native instrument, was known throughout the 19th and much of the 20th century for only two works—one of them, an ersatz cello concerto compiled from four of his originals. Grützmacher’s “edition” has been retired, fortunately, after those same originals were dusted off and recognized for the fine and experimental works they are. Complete editions are still rare, however, so this budget collection is welcome on that score alone.
The performances are good. Bronzi, a first-prize winner at the Pablo Casals in Helsinki, has an excellent technique. He can summon forth a singing legato phrase, accents convincingly, and manages the rapid passagework of the finales with ease. There are a few momentary finger slips that could have been repaired with additional takes, but given the hair-raising tempos the cellist prefers in a few of the faster movements, that’s a relatively minor matter when listening to such musical virtuosity."
-- Barry Brenesal, Fanfare
"As the date makes clear, these are oldish recordings, part of a series of five double-discs reissued in striking covers - paintings by William Oxer - by Austrian label Phoenix. The CDs were originally released separately in 1993 by Capriccio in time for the 250th anniversary of Boccherini's birth. Half a dozen years ago they emerged again, alongside numerous other Quintets and Quartets, in the label's 10-disc boxed set commemorating the 200th anniversary of Boccherini's death.
Six musical gems can be found on CD2 in the form of the op.55 Oboe Quintets. All but one are in two movements only, typically a short minuet finale preceded by a longer fast or slow movement. The oboe may be replaced by a flute, and the set has been recorded at least once as such. Boccherini gave instructions to his publisher, Ignaz Pleyel, to 'adjust' the oboe parts if they proved too tricky to sell as Boccherini had written them. The autographs were later lost, meaning that there is no way of knowing whether these works are the altered versions.
Unfortunately, no biographical information on the sterling performers, some of whom appeared on the excellent volume of Sextets, is provided in the German-English booklet. Only a few of the soloists are named on the front cover, one of which is Lajos Lencsés who, according to the French Oboe Association, has made over fifty recordings, the bulk of which have been on Capriccio. Eckart Haupt, former solo flautist for the Staatskapelle Dresden, has also made a fair few recordings in his time, again especially for Capriccio in the Eighties and Nineties, but these days seems to be concentrating on research. The Parisii Quartet formed in Paris in 1984 and have since made numerous recordings, specialising naturally in French repertoire.
Boccherini is a composer of considerable originality who was banished to musical purgatory on the ill-informed say-so of early and mid-20th century critics. He deserves to be remembered for so much more than the "celebrated minuet", and this disc is a great place for anyone to start an exploration of his magnificent oeuvre."
-- Byzantion, MusicWeb International
"The first disc showcases four of Boccherini's six String Sextets, among his finest works, and among the finest - and earliest - of the genre. If ever proof was needed that Boccherini was no poor country cousin to his contemporary celebrities, Haydn and Mozart, it can be found here in these miraculously inventive, sonorous works, beautifully played by the three pairs of soloists. Boccherini delightfully blends dignity, pensiveness, ebullience and wit. The pauses in the finale of op.23 no.6 are very funny, straight out of Haydn's Guide to Keeping Audiences on their Toes. Why it took eighty years for Brahms's op.18 to make the string sextet popular is one of the great mysteries of the 19th century. In sum, this is a must-have album for all lovers of beautiful music."
-- -- Byzantion, MusicWeb International
Trio Sonatas, Violin Sonatas
Boccherini seems to be a composer about whom opinions strongly diverge. Either you love him or you hate him. There are musicians, in particular cellists, who adore him and play his music frequently; others detest him and avoid his compositions at all cost. That difference of opinion isn't a phenomenon of our time. In the booklet notes for this set Laura Alvini quotes several composers and theorists of the 18th and 19th century. Their opinions on Boccherini are just as different as those in our time. Grétry, for instance, wrote that Boccherini's music is alternately "gloomy, tender, rending, gracious and even excessively gay". Only a couple of decades later the German composer Louis Spohr gave a completely different verdict: "this is not music". Today it is mainly Boccherini's string quintets and some of his cello concertos which are paid attention. From this perspective the set of discs to be reviewed here presents music one wouldn't expect from the composer who in his time was celebrated as one of the world's greatest cellists.
One of the cities where Boccherini performed in this capacity was Paris, although only one performance is documented. He arrived during a tour of Europe which was planned to end in London in 1767. In fact it ended in Madrid instead. At about that time two collections of music by Boccherini were published in Paris. It was here that he composed the six sonatas for pianoforte and violin opus 5. The set was dedicated to an amateur keyboard player, Anne Louise Boyvin d'Hardancourt Brillon de Jouy. She was an excellent musician, as the English journalist Charles Burney testifies: "she is one of the greatest lady-players on the harpsichord in Europe. This lady (...) plays the most difficult pieces with great precision, taste and feeling (...). She likewise composes, and she was so obliging as to play several of her own pieces both on the harpsichord and pianoforte accompanied with the violin by M. Pagin, who is reckoned in France the best scholar of Tartini ever made." This remark about her performing on the pianoforte is interesting. At the time Boccherini wrote his six sonatas opus 5, the pianoforte was still a relatively new instrument, but Ms Brillon inspired him to write the keyboard part specifically for the new instrument, including dynamic markings. When the sonatas were published in 1769 the reference to the pianoforte was replaced by "harpsichord" and many dynamic markings were removed. This reflected the fact that the harpsichord was still the dominant keyboard instrument. The publisher simply had to adapt the sonatas for commercial reasons.
According to Franco Angeleri in Boccherini's sonatas the violin is no longer subordinate to the keyboard, "but is instead completely integrated with the fortepiano into a single musical fabric, thus giving rise to an evolutionary process which will culminate in Beethoven's conception of the sonata for violin and piano". This seems to me a little exaggerated: the keyboard takes a clear lead in the proceedings, is the most busy of the two and is often the most virtuosic. Four of the six sonatas are in three movements, mostly fast - slow - fast, whereas the two remaining sonatas are in two movements. Some movements are quite dramatic, like the allegro assai from the Sonata No. 4 and the allegro molto from the 5th Sonata. One of the features of Boccherini's music is that some thematic material returns time and again in several compositions. With the exception of the allegro assai from the 4th Sonata already referred to, that is not the case here, probably because these sonatas are early works and the composer’s trademarks had not as yet been fully developed.
Although the six sonatas for keyboard with violin and cello date from more than ten years later they are connected to the opus 5. The title pages of 18th century prints contain the words "Second Livre" (second book), which - as there are no previous trios of this kind by Boccherini - can only refer to the sonatas opus 5. The collection's title is "Six Sonates en trio pour le Clavecin ou Pianoforte avec accompagnement de violon et basse" showing that in these trios the keyboard again has the main part. Even so it has to be noted that the cello isn't simply playing the bass line of the keyboard but regularly follows its own path. It is a shame that in this recording the balance between the instruments is sometimes less than ideal as the cello part isn't always clearly audible. The structure of these sonatas is somewhat different from that of the sonatas opus 5. Only two of the six sonatas are in three movements and both begin with a movement in a moderate tempo - poco andante and moderato respectively - and end with a menuet, one of which is a 'minuetto militare'. The other four sonatas are in two movements, which was quite usual at the time in chamber music of a diverting nature.
The authenticity of these trios has been questioned. For example, in Gérard's catalogue of Boccherini's works they are labelled 'spurious'. But Laura Alvini is convinced these works are indeed written by Boccherini. Her reasoning seems pretty convincing. If one listens to these trios there is no reason why they are hardly played in comparison to the trios for this scoring by Haydn or Mozart. Laura Alvini underlines the modernity of Boccherini's trios in regard to the relatively independent role of the cello, which is "ahead of its time".
Both collections get very fine performances on these discs. The dramatic, the more lyrical and the diverting aspects of these works come out well. Both Franco Angeleri and Laura Alvini display the colours of the fortepiano and fully exploit its dynamic possibilities. Unfortunately the instruments used here are not specified in the booklet. In both recordings Enrico Gatti plays the violin and he does so with great expression, as does Roberto Gini who plays the cello part in the trios.
Boccherini once said: "I know well that music is made to speak to the heart of man, and this is what I try to do if I can; Music without feelings and Passions is meaningless". The works presented here are definitely not without "feelings and Passions", and therefore the musicians have done both Boccherini and modern audiences a great favour by presenting them in such splendid interpretations.
-- Johan van Veen, MusicWeb International