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Joseph Bodin DE BOISMORTIER (1689 - 1755): "Six Concertos for five Flutes"

Barthold Kuijkena, Frank Theunsb, Marc Hantaïc, Daniel Etienned, Serge Saïttae, transverse flute

rec: Sept 1995, Haarlem, Doopsgezinde Kerk
Accent - ACC 24161 (R) [2004] (72'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Concerto for 2 transverse flutes in G, op. 38,3ac; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in G, op. 15,1abcde; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in a minor, op. 15,2abcde; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in D, op. 15,3abcde; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in b minor, op. 15,4abcde; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in A, op. 15,5abcde; Concerto for 5 transverse flutes in e minor, op. 15,6abcde; Sonata for 3 transverse flutes in d minor, op. 7,4abc; Suite for transverse flute in b minor, op. 35,5a

Sources: [1] Sonates en trio, op. 7, 1725; [2] VI Concertos pour cinq Flûtes-Traversières ou autres instrumens, sans basse, op. 15, 1727; [3] Six suites de pièces, op. 35, 1731; [4] Six concertos pour deux flûtes sans basse, op. 38, 1732

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier was perhaps the very first free-lance composer in history. Being born in Thionville in Lorraine as the son of a confectioner, he went to Perpignan in 1713 and established himself there as a collector for the Royal Tobacco Excise Office, a position he held the next ten years. He must have received some musical training, though, since in 1721 a drinking song by a 'M. Boismortier de Metz' was published. His musical activities increased and he went to Paris, where he received his first permission to publish music in 1724. He published duos for transverse flutes and cantatas, which was the start of a career as France's most prolific composer in the 18th century, whose oeuvre consists of more than 100 opus numbers with instrumental music, and in addition to that cantatas, motets and some stage works. He also was active as a theorist, writing treatises on the transverse flute and the pardessus de viole.

But Boismortier was also the victim of sharp criticism. According to some the size of his musical output went at the cost of its quality. He was specifically accused of writing easy stuff, which could be played by amateurs with limited technical skills. The theorist Jean-Benjamin de La Borde wrote that "Boismortier appeared at a time when people only liked music that was simple and very graceful. This clever musician profited all too much from this fashionable taste ...". Boismortier wasn't making any excuses, as de La Borde writes: "Boismortier, in reply to these criticisms, said: I make money." One has to assume, though, that he also had didactic motifs, as the writing of the above-mentioned treatises suggests. And this can be directly linked to the spirit of the Enlightenment, gaining ground at Boismortier's time.

Boismortier may have written a whole lot of music in response to the growing demand of music which was not too difficult to play, he was breaking new grounds in several ways, and some of his music is very original in concept. The Concertos for 5 transverse flutes opus 15, which are recorded here, are a good example. Never before had any composer written any music for 5 instruments of the same range without a bass. In addition to that, Boismortier was one of the first French composers to use the Italian form of concerto. And indeed there isn't much French in these concertos. All movements have Italian titles: allegro, adagio, largo and affettuoso. Boismortier also abandoned any prescription of the ornamentation which was so characteristic for French music. The title of concerto suggests a contrast between soli and tutti, and that is indeed the distinctive feature of these concertos. The five transverse flutes are not treated as equals: in most concertos one or two play the leading role, whereas the others play the tutti. Although the concertos don't have a part for basso continuo, one of the flutes is in fact acting like a bass. One could compare these concertos with the 'concerti da camera' by Vivaldi.

It isn't in the concertos for five flutes only that the parts are treated differently. Even in the Concerto in G, op. 38,3 the two flutes are no equals: the first is dominating, although both instruments are in dialogue in some passages.

The Suite in b minor, op. 35,5 which opens this disc is one of the most typically French pieces of the programme: it starts with a 'prélude', like so many suites by French composers, and this is followed by four dance movements. This sonata can be played with or without basso continuo. Also French in style is the Sonata in d minor, op. 7,4, in four movements with French titles. Sometimes the three flutes imitate each other, in other instances they follow their own route.

This disc shows Boismortier at his best. All pieces on the programme are delightful and entertaining, and they get the best possible performance here. The ensemble playing is immaculate, and the sound is delicate and refined. The tempi are well chosen, and phrasing and articulation are clear. Of course, the dynamic differentiation is very important in these concertos, and this is dealt with very convincingly. I especially enjoyed the Concerto in D, op. 15,3 which is one of the most Vivaldian, and whose fast movements are played with great panache. Barthold Kuijken gives a very sensitive performance of the solo suite.

The above-mentioned theorist Jean-Benjamin de La Borde, in spite of his criticism, acknowledged that one may find some grains of gold in the mine of Boismortier's oeuvre. This disc presents nine of them in sparkling performances.

Johan van Veen (© 2005)

Relevant links:

Barthold Kuijken

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