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Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743 - 1804): Sonatas

[I] "Apocryphal Sonatas for violin and harpsichord"
Aarón Zapico, harpsichord; Emilio Moreno, violin
rec: Sept 2017, Torremocha (Madrid), Finca Casa de Oficios
Glossa - GCD 920315 (© 2018) (60'04")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/ES
Cover, track-list & booklet

Sonata in C 'La Seguidilla' (arr Emilio Moreno/Aarón Zapico) (after Quintettino in C, op. 50,5, G 374); Sonata in c minor (G 43) (arr. Jean Henri Naderman, 1778) (after Quartet in c minor, op. 2,1, G 159) [3]; Sonata in D (G 24,4) (arr Christoph Daniel Ebeling, 1775) (after Trio in D, op. 14,4, G 98) [2]; Sonata in G 'La Tirana' (arr Emilio Moreno/Aarón Zapico) (after Quartet in G, op. 44,4, G 223)

[II] "Sound Pantomimes - 6 Sonatas per violoncello e basso"
Dmitri Dichtiar, cello; Pavel Serbin, cello [bc]; Thorsten Bleich, archlutea, theorbob, guitarc
rec: March 9 - 11, 2017, Möhringen, Kreuzkirche
Coviello Classics - COV92005 (2 CDs) (© 2019) (1.41'36")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in A (G 13)a [1]; Sonata II in C (G 6)a [1]; Sonata III in G (G 5)c [1]; Sonata IV in E flat (G 10) [1]; Sonata V in F (G 1)a [1]; Sonata VI in A (G 4)b [1]

Sources: [1] Luigi Boccherini, Six sonatas for the violoncello, c1775; [2] Christoph Daniel Ebeling, ed., Sei Sonate per il cembalo e violino ad libitum, 1775; [3] Jean Henri Naderman, ed., Six Sonates pour le clavecin, forte piano ou harpe avec accompagnement de violon obligee, tirees des oeuvres de Luigi Boccherini, 1778


It seems to be no exaggeration to call Luigi Boccherini the 'forgotten composer' of the classical era. Some of his compositions are rather well-known, such as his Stabat mater, the quintets for guitar and strings, a symphony with the nickname 'La casa del diavolo' and, of course, the quintet called 'La ritirata di Madrid'. And then there is the menuet, used in commercials and TV series. Otherwise, his name seldom appears on concert programmes, and although a respectable number of discs with his music are available, a large part of his oeuvre is hardly known and is virtually ignored by performers and the recording industry. That is very different from his stature in his own time. One of the greatest composers of the classical era, Joseph Haydn, was very keen to meet him and wrote him some letters to express his admiration, which unfortunately never reached Boccherini. Emilio Moreno, in his liner-notes to the Glossa disc, mentions that his compositions have been preserved across Europe and even beyond that, as far as the Dutch East-Indies (today Indonesia). Some of the main publishers of his time, such as Artaria in Vienna and Longman in London, printed his music, which sold well. How much has changed since then. From that angle we have to welcome every recording of his music, in particular such works, which don't receive that much attention.

Boccherini the composer is first and foremost connected with the string quintet, with that typical scoring for two cellos rather than two violas. This scoring was obviously inspired by the fact that he himself was a brilliant cellist, and wrote the first cello part for himself. However, he also wrote music in which the cello does not play any role, and that is what the first disc is about.

Sonatas and other pieces for obbligato keyboard and violin were quite popular across Europe in the second half of the 18th century. Boccherini did not contribute to this genre except the six sonatas Op. 5. He wrote them during a stay in Paris, where he performed as a cellist. 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. These sonatas are available in several recordings. The Glossa disc offers four 'apocryphal sonatas' as the frontispiece says. They are not from the pen of Boccherini, but rather arrangements of compositions for other scorings. Two of them are from Boccherini's own time, attesting to his popularity as a composer of chamber music, but also the widespread practice of adapting music for performance on combinations of instruments that were at hand. Given the demand for pieces for keyboard and violin, it does not surprise that music for other scorings was adapted for this combination.

The programme opens with one of the six trios for violin, viola and cello that Boccherini published in 1772 as his Op. 14. In 1775 the German writer on music and translator Christoph Daniel Ebeling published a set of six sonatas for harpsichord and violin, all arrangements of pieces by Boccherini. It is notable that the violin part is ad libitum, meaning that it can be omitted. This was quite common at the time, and the original scoring did not cause any problem to play all three parts on the keyboard. That may have been different with the second work included here, the Sonata in c minor. In 1778, the harpist of German origin, Jean-Henri Naderman, published a set of six sonatas, all arranged from pieces by Boccherini. Here the title page mentions the fortepiano as alternative to the harpsichord, reflecting the increasing popularity of the former in France. As Naderman was a professional harpist, he also mentioned the harp. The sonata played here is an arrangement of an early string quartet, and that was probably too much to be covered by a keyboard only (and probably even more so by the harp). This may explain that in this set the violin part has an obbligato role.

The two artists use this 18th-century practice as justification for their own arrangements. They have taken a string quartet and a string quintet and turn them into sonatas for harpsichord and violin. Both have nicknames which seem to suggest that they include special effects. That is difficult to discern in these arrangements, but those effects may be responsible for these two sonatas not being entirely convincing. In the closing movement of the Sonata in C, Emilio Moreno plays an extended cadenza; as I don't know the original piece, I can't tell what may be the reason for that, and what the episode sounds like in the original scoring. Although the two artists come up with fine performances, these two pieces leave me a little unsatisfied. Others may have different opinions.

On balance, though, this is a nice disc to have, and lovers of Boccherini's music should investigate it. The practice of arrangements may be treated with some scepticism, but as long as it is done in accordance with the style of the original compositions, there is no objection against it. It may even be an interesting way to extend the repertoire for particular scorings.

The second disc is devoted to Boccherini's own instrument, the cello. This takes a central role in his oeuvre. Not only did he compose twelve solo concertos and around forty sonatas, but he also gave the cello a special role in his chamber music, in particular the string quintet, which was his speciality. The cello sonatas constitute one of the least-known parts of his output. He never made any attempt to have them published. Even so, six were printed: the six sonatas that Dmitri Dichtiar recorded were published in London around 1775, without the consent of the composer - a quite usual practice in a time without copyright.

It is not known for sure why Boccherini did not publish them or may not even have wanted them being printed; he also did exclude them from his own catalogue of works. He may have intended them for his own use or he may have considered them technically too challenging for the market of amateurs. They were probably written shortly after the middle of the century, and at that time, the cello was not very common among amateurs. Professional cellists usually played their own music, as did Boccherini. It is also possible that the sonatas were intended as educational material. Thomas Seedorf, in his liner-notes, comes up with the suggestion that Boccherini may have been too critical about his own oeuvre. "[A] kind of self-criticism which led to their exclusion from his own catalogue of works cannot be eliminated". He also mentions that they bear the traces of the baroque style, which was considered outdated at the time. Luigi Puxeddu, in his notes to his complete recording of Boccherini's cello sonatas (Brilliant Classics, 2009), also mentions this aspect. "Boccherini's music is intimately connected with the means of expression and articulation of the time, and for this reason has been strongly penalized by the change in expressive style through Classicism to the present day".

The latter is certainly true. Some cellists love Boccherini, others can't stand him. There seems to be no middle way. The late Anner Bijlsma was one of his strongest advocates, and he may well have been one of the first who played and recorded his cello sonatas. However, although some sonatas are available in several recordings, Puxeddu's recording is the only complete edition to date, which tells us something about the mixed reception of this repertoire in our time. From that perspective any recording of these sonatas has to be welcomed.

Boccherini's sonatas were a substantial contribution to the development of cello technique. He consistently explores the highest positions, whereas he mostly avoids to go to the bottom of the cello's range. In the sonatas which Dichtiar recorded, we find several examples of the former, such as the allegro moderato from the Sonata I in A, the allegro moderato from the Sonata II in C and two movements from the Sonata IV in E flat and the Sonata V in F. The Sonata II opens with a quite dramatic allegro. The second movement of the Sonata III in G is called allegro alla militare, which explains the rather straightforward rhythms. However, the various short passages in a slow tempo cause some relaxation. Boccherini's sonatas are also an expression of the new aesthetics, aiming at more naturalness. Two of the sonatas end with a movement called affettuoso, and one closes with an amoroso.

The accompaniment is an issue where performers take different decisions. The sonatas were published as Six sonatas for the violoncello, but in his autograph Boccherini noted the instrumentation as "violoncello solo, e basso". The bass is not figured, and it could be played on a second cello, as is the case here in the Sonata IV. However, the participation of a chordal instrument is certainly possible. Here the five other sonatas are accompanied by a plucked instrument: an archlute, a theorbo and a guitar respectively. Other performers have opted for a keyboard instrument, either harpsichord or fortepiano.

Dmitri Dichtiar is a brilliant and sensitive interpreter. His immaculate technique may make these sonatas sound easier than they are. It allows him to explore the musical qualities of these pieces, which are far more than demonstrations of cello technique. Those who know Boccherini's music will recognize some melodic formulas. However, in these works which he wrote relatively early in his career, one does not find that many hallmarks of his style as in later works, such as the string quintets. With time, he was to develop an idiom of himself, which is clearly different from that of his contemporaries. For those who are not familiar with his cello sonatas, this set of two discs is the ideal way to get to know them.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Aarón Zapico

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