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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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Luigi BOCCHERINI (1745-1805)
String Quintets - Volume 1

Quintets for two violins, viola, and two cellos Op. 10 (1771) G 265-270
CD 1: Quintet in A major; Quintet in E flat major; Quintet in C minor
CD 2: Quintet in C major; Quintet in E flat major; Quintet in D major
La Magnifica Comunita
Recorded at the Abbazia di Carceri d’Este Padova – Italy, February 2004
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 92503 [65.01 + 57.25]


Brilliant Classics have not been content simply to present at an incredible budget piece totally standard repertoire. They investigate some of the quiet corners of the chamber repertoire and now turn their attention to a much maligned figure. He is better known for a single minuet, a piece which seems to sum up (rather unfairly) the periwigs, golden ballrooms, precision of manners and stereotypical charms of the late 18th Century. Luigi Boccherini was prolific, yet much of his music is totally unknown. His sad and poverty-stricken life seems out of character with the gentle bourgeois pieces that we do know. As for his more serious music, including these quintets, most of it has been left to gather dust. Well, not any more. So, let’s take stock of these works and performances.

They are scored for two cellos, viola and two violins not the usual string quintet combination but the one made famous by Schubert in his late work in C major. The important point about this is that the sound is more rich and it allows the composer a wide variety of textures. For instance he can have one cello playing a melody in middle register with the other acting like a double bass keeping the harmony underneath possibly in pizzicato. Another texture is to have a bass melody running in thirds or sixths underneath a descant or three-part counterpoint or allowing the viola and top cello to move in parallel over a pedal point; just a few possibilities there are many others of course, and Boccherini exploits them.

Authentic instruments, or I should say original instruments, are used. It is very difficult to imagine any new recordings of music before 1900 nowadays which do not use original instruments ... even Johann Strauss I now notice. The effect is taut and wiry but not unpleasant. Indeed it is often very beautiful as with the unusual ‘Pastorale’ movement which opens the sixth quintet. The ‘forte’ attacks are convincing and the bass is clean and crisp. In addition the viola can sound wondrously flute-like in the higher register. The whole thing is aided by the excellent Italian Abbey acoustic and well-spaced stereo sound picture.

These performers ‘La Magnifica Comunita’ add to the interest by taking great care with dynamics and shading - some of which will not be in the original score - and with a wider variety of articulation even using harmonics when a pianissimo effect seems appropriate. They are amazingly imaginative players who really make the music live.

Boccherini favours the major keys, which is in keeping with the sunny disposition most listeners expect of him. The C minor Quintet however (was this Beethoven’s favourite key?) is a very fine work perhaps the gem of the collection, and one which does seem to point into the Romantic era. Boccherini also favours a four movement structure with the Minuetto as the third movement. It is however of note that the sixth quintet - the one which starts with a ‘Pastorale’ - has only three movements ending with an extended Minuetto. The Fifth Quintet, also in three movements, does not have a Minuetto at all. Are the shackles of the Baroque finally being thrown off?

Which brings us to Boccherini’s style? He is described in some books as "The wife of Haydn" which implies a more feminine and less Germanic style. Well could that mean more tuneful? In a way yes, because Boccherini has a typically Italian sense of long melody sometimes harmonized in thirds. Perhaps not as witty as Haydn? Again yes, but listen to the allegro movement of the Second Quintet. Boccherini is rarely overly serious and does have passages of wickedly flamboyant rhythms and swinging syncopations. His harmonic sense is Mozartian but he rarely takes risks. His slower movements have passages which touch on the sublime - Quintet No. 2 movement 1 is marked ‘Amoroso’. Sometimes early Romanticism is just around the corner as in C minor Quintet. He sometimes starts an opening Allegro movement with a mysterious slow introduction as for example in the Fourth Quintet. Another musical highlight for me is the two presto movements which end the Second and Third Quintets. Haydn is there and even possibly Rossini, and how brilliantly played these fast movements are.

The CD notes by Dr. David Doughty are adequate saying much about Boccherini’s life and musical background but almost nothing about the individual works. There is also the usual performer’s biography.

Gary Higginson


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