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Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743 - 1805): "Sonatas for keyboard with string accompaniment"

Franco Angeleri, fortepiano; Enrico Gatti, violin; Galimathias Musicum
rec: April 1989, Bologna, Eremo di Ronzanoa; 1991, Bologna, Convent of San Domenico (Salone Bolognini)b
Brilliant Classics - 93363 (2 CDs) (R) [2008] (73'26" / 63'30")
Liner-notes: E

[CD 1]a: "Opera V: Sonatas for fortepiano and violin accompaniment"
Sonata I in B flat (G 25); Sonata II in C (G 26); Sonata III in B flat (G 27); Sonata IV in D (G 28); Sonata V in g minor (G 29); Sonata VI in E flat (G 30)
[CD 2]b: "Six Sonatas in three parts (1781)"
Sonata I in C (G 143); Sonata II in e minor (G 144); Sonata III in E flat (G 145); Sonata IV in D (G 146); Sonata V in B flat (G 147); Sonata VI in g minor (G 148)

[CD 2] Laura Alvini, fortepiano; Enrico Gatti, violin; Roberto Gini, cello

Boccherini seems to be a composer on 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 whose 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 should end in London in 1767 (but in fact 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 in 1769 the sonatas were published 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 dominating 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 IV in D and the allegro molto from the Sonata V in g minor. 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 10 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 has the main part again. 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. Ms 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 (© 2008)

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