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Alexandre Pierre François BOËLY (1785 - 1858): "Sonates et Caprices"

Christine Schornsheim, fortepianoa, table pianob

rec: April 2007, The Hague, Gemeentemuseum
Phoenix Edition - 127 (© 2008) (74'24")

Sonata in c minor, op. 1,1a; Sonata in G, op. 1,2a; Trente Caprices ou Pièces d'Étude pour le Piano, op. 2b (sel.): Allegro in F, op. 2,1; Allegretto in A, op. 2,2; Allegretto in E, op. 2,5; Andante in c sharp minor, op. 2,6; Andante in F sharp, op. 2,7; Allegro molto vivace in a minor, op. 2,9; Allegro in G, op. 2,10; Agitato in g minor, op. 2,11; Presto in b minor, op. 2,14; Allegro in D, op. 2,15; Allegro, sempre legato in A flat, op. 2,17; Presto, ma non troppo in g minor, op. 2,19; Moderato in B flat, op. 2,20; Scherzando in c sharp minor, op. 2,21; Moderato, sempre legato in f sharp minor, op. 2,22; Allegro in c minor, op. 2,23; Andante in g minor, 2,25; Allegro moderato in e minor, op. 2,27; Andantino in d minor, op. 2,29; Moderato con espressione in b minor, op. 2,30

In programmes of chamber music of the first part of the 19th century French music doesn't feature very prominently. Many composers who were celebrities in their time in France, and particularly in the drawing rooms of Paris, are largely ignored today. Names which spring to mind are those of Kalkbrenner, Onslow, Franchomme, Pleyel or even Reicha. Alexandre Pierre François Boëly is another name which is hardly known. The kind of music he is best known for is his organ music. He wrote quite a lot of it, and his works regularly appear on the programmes of organists. But his contributions to other musical genres are almost unknown. He wrote a number of works for violin and pianoforte, string trios and string quartets and music for pianoforte, including pieces for quatre-mains.

Boëly came from a musical family: his first teacher was his father Jean François (1739 - 1814), who was a theorist, singer and harpist. He entered the Conservatoire in 1796, but when a conflict arose between his father and one of the directors of the Conservatoire, Gossec, he left the institution. It was the music of Bach, Couperin and the Viennese classics which were part of his self-teaching after he had left the Conservatoire. Later on he mainly acted as an organist, which explains the large number of organ compositions. In 1840 he became organist at St Germain-l’Auxerrois. But the clergy found his style too austere and he was forced to resign.

This assessment of his style can be explained from his great interest in music of the past. It is interesting to quote his lifelong friend, the violinist Eugène Sauzay (1809 - 1901): "He composed, played the piano and organ, and performed the viola parts in our quartets as well as Haydn himself did. Music was his whole life and he believed that anything that got in the way of music, including eating, was a waste of time. He was so familiar with early music and the very substance of the old masters, Bach especially, that in the long run he could no longer distinguish his own works from theirs. (...) When everything was ready, he would sit down at his pedal-piano with his snuff-box close at hand and play through Bach's three-part Chorals or a whole book of his fine Etudes".

These Etudes are probably the Trente Caprices ou Pièces d'étude pour le piano opus 2, which are featured on this disc. They were published around 1816 in Paris. They were dedicated to 'Madame Bigot'; Marie Bigot née Kiené (1786 - 1820) was a famous pianist who performed in Vienna where she came into contact with Haydn, Salieri and Beethoven. The latter gave her the autograph of his Appassionata sonata which she had played at sight. In 1809 she and her husband moved to Paris, where she performed in attendance of, among others, Boëly and Cherubini. In her concerts she often included music of previous eras, especially Bach and Handel. In his Caprices Boëly pays tribute to those masters, although without imitating them. I don't think anyone listening to these Caprices will confuse them with the genuine works of the past masters Bach, Handel or Scarlatti.

The disc opens and closes with the two sonatas which were published as his opus 1 in 1810. These are influenced by Beethoven, whom Boëly greatly admired. According to a contemporary these sonatas were unique for France for their "love of liberty and youthful energy". In particular the Sonata in c minor, op. 1,1 is very Beethoven-like. The second movement, adagio con espressione, is dark and pathetic, and the sonata closes with a presto movement full of virtuosic passage work. The Sonata in G, op. 1,2 is of a more light-hearted nature, reflected by the key, and the fact that the three movements are all written in a fast tempo: allegro con brio, scherzo (allegro) and rondo vivace ma non troppo presto.

It is quite difficult to understand why these two sonatas have been neglected. It could well be, though, that they need a historical piano to reveal their real character. For instance the passages in the closing movement of the first Sonata from opus 1 could easily sound empty and shallow. That is not the case here, because of the differences in colour between the descant, the middle and the bass of the piano played here, an Érard from 1808, which results in a broad sound palette. Also the dynamic possibilities of the two pianos are used to great effect by Ms Schornsheim. In addition the Érard piano has some registers which have disappeared from modern concert grands, like the 'jeu de basson' which is used in the last movement of the second Sonata. It is put into effect by a knee lever which brings a roll of paper to touch lightly on the strings from the middle of the compass down to the last bass note. This paper vibrates on the strings when they are played, giving a bassoon-like sound.

The other instrument is a square piano, also built by Érard (1802). The square piano was quite popular at the time and was especially used at home. It is a very appropriate instrument to play the caprices which are more suitable to be played at home than in a public concert. As each of the caprices is rather short the differentiation of sound the square piano is able to produce is very welcome. Apart from the registers additional variation is created by closing, opening or half-opening the lid.

Christine Schornsheim is one of the world's leading players of historical pianos and has produced a number of very fine recordings. She has a special interest in music which is largely neglected, and her choice of these pieces by Boëly is fully justified. Hopefully it will open the ears for the music of Boëly and his French contemporaries which fare well if played with historical instruments. One could argue that it is a shame that only a selection of the Caprices has been recorded, but the whole opus has been recorded before on a historical instrument (by Laure Colladant) and this way there was enough space left to record the two fine sonatas. Christine Schornsheim plays the programme splendidly and uses the two magnificent instruments to great effect. The recording engineer also has done a very good job and the booklet contains informative notes on Boëly and his music as well as information about the instrument - and the development of Érard pianos - by Michael Latcham.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

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Christine Schornsheim

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