Something Old / Something New

The Chamber Music of Luigi Boccherini: Elegance, Always

Issue 140

In his own day, Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805) was decidedly retro. The Italian composer was trained first by his cellist father in the town of Lucca and eventually in the musically conservative city of Rome, only to be whisked away to serve in the Spanish court, which further isolated him from the latest compositional trends. As a result of this background, Boccherini’s music sounds like it’s from the late baroque or pre-classical eras, even though he was born 11 years after Haydn.

A slew of recent recordings explores the genre in which Boccherini was most prolific, and for which he is best known today: chamber music. His years in Madrid, under the patronage of the king of Spain’s younger brother, taught him to churn out small-group instrumental works – be they for two players or a chamber orchestra – as an almost daily soundtrack to the royal lifestyle. Once he lost that job (for refusing to change a passage in a string trio!), he had no trouble finding deep pockets to support him back in Italy. It was in that later period that he wrote the String Quintet in E, Op. 11, No. 5, whose Minuet movement has become a shorthand in movie soundtracks to signify elegance, often with an ironic wink that the composer never intended.

But the Op. 11 quintets are just a sampling of the 160 pieces that Boccherini wrote in that genre. The Elisa Baciocchi String Quintet just came out with a recording of the set of four Op. 42 quintets on Da Vinci Classics. This Italian ensemble specializes in lesser-known classical and pre-classical chamber music.

As exemplified in that famous Minuet, successful renditions of Boccherini place elegance at their center. The Baciocchi recording of the Quintet in B Minor, Op. 42, No. 3, complies with the expectation insofar as the phrasing is expressive and non-aggressive. Yet the players unfortunately seem to equate a galant sound with a lack of solid contact between bow and string, as in their breathy rendition of the opening movement, marked Andantino affettuoso.

 

The group’s energy is more focused, if the articulation still not razor-sharp, in the Quintet in C Major, Op. 42. The third movement, Allegro assai, is a wonderful example of Boccherini’s ability to make the instruments communicate as equals, just as Haydn had recently established as the industry standard for chamber music.

 

The creation of much of 18th-century chamber music was determined by how many musicians happened to be available and what size room they were supposed to play in. Sometimes Boccherini wrote for three instead of five, including over a hundred string trios (violin, viola, cello) and a dozen or so piano trios (violin, cello, piano).

Examples of the former have been included in a new recording called Boccherini: La Bona Notte by La Real Cámara on the Glossa Cabinet label. On the program are three string trios and a violin duet. The Spanish ensemble La Real Cámara, under the direction of its founder, Emilio Moreno, was formed in 1992 with a mandate to preserve the music of Spain, the country where Boccherini produced a significant number of his works.

Moreno, who is also a violist, is joined by violinist Enrico Gatta and cellist Wouter Möller. The three men work in symbiotic artistry, tugging at Boccherini’s phrases in a way that acknowledges how, despite his conservatism, he was a composer of the mature classical era, not the baroque. Listen to their expressiveness in the Rondo second movement of String Trio in G Minor, Op. 6 No. 5.

 

The fact that Boccherini was himself a cellist certainly contributed to his choice of instrumentation. In an album intriguingly titled Sound Pantomimes on the MBM label, Russian cellist Dmitri Dichtiar celebrates with the composer’s six sonatas for cello and basso continuo. One might expect that the continuo, which traditionally used a chordal instrument (piano, harpsichord, lute, guitar) and cello in this period, would leave out the extra cello. But no, Pavel Serbin takes on the role of continuo cellist, while Thorsten Bleich plucks delicate yet stirring harmony on a theorbo (a lute with a six-foot neck).

For its unusual sonic textures alone, this record would be worth hearing, but Dichtiar’s exquisitely melodious technique makes it doubly so. The opening Allegro moderato from the Sonata I in A Major has a relentlessly aching, sweet quality, reminding us that this music deserves to be performed more frequently.

 

The busy Mr. Boccherini was also a flutist, and his output of works for that instrument is significant, mostly in the form of trios and quintets. Recently, Spanish flutist Rafael Ruibérriz De Torres recorded the complete flute quintets with the Francisco de Goya String Quartet on Brilliant Classics.

Ruibérriz De Torres, who specializes in 17th- and 18th-century performance practice, captures the perfect latter-day Rococo sound: elegance infused with a complex sense of drama. In this excerpt from the Flute Quintet Op. 19, No. 3 in C Major, the virtuosic yet effortless flute solo line is ably accompanied by spritely, graceful phrases in the quartet, which by turns functions as continuo and as counterpoint, sometimes passing around the melody without the flute.

 

On their new album Une nuit à Madrid, French early-music ensemble Les Ombres also takes a crack at the Op. 19 quintets under the music direction of Margaux Blanchard and Silvain Sartre. These are all short, efficient pieces of only two movements each, making it particularly important to capture the dramatic arc in each section. Les Ombres’ performance of the Presto assai that ends Op.19, No. 5 in B-flat is an absolute nail-biter, full of suspenseful rhythmic energy and grit while still maintaining that essential lightness.

 

No discussion of Boccherini’s instrumental music is complete without mentioning the guitar. During his time in Spain, the composer paid special attention to that instrument, which was largely ignored in the rest of Europe throughout the classical period. Les Ombres included two of Boccherini’s nine guitar quintets on their record.

While the composer mainly stuck with movement types standard in chamber music, the most famous movement of his guitar quintet output is the finale of the Quintet in D Major, G. 448. Rather than having an Italian expressive marking, it is labeled “Fandango,” with the structure and rhythm of the famous Portuguese/Spanish dance.

Les Ombres’ sexy, humorous reading, complete with castanets, leans into the syncopation. It will have you stomping your feet. But elegantly, of course.

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