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CD: Crotchet

Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
String Quintet No.91 for 2 violins, viola & 2 cellos in C minor Op.45 No.1 (1792) ‘Opera Grande’ G355
String Sextet No.4 for 2 violins, 2 violas & 2 cellos in F major Op.23 No.4 (1776) ‘Opera Grande’ G457
String Quartet No.56 in C minor Op.41 No.1 (1788) ‘Opera Grande’ G214
String Trio No.22 in D major Op.14 No.4 (1772) ‘Opera Grande’ G98
Europa Galante (Fabio Biondi, Andrea Rognoni, violins; Stefano Marocchi, Ernesto Braucher, violas; Muarizio Naddeo, Antonio Fantinuoli, cellos)
rec. Library of Monastero San Giovanni Evangelista, Parma, Italy, 12-15 January 2008. DDD.
Includes Opendisc online access to bonus tracks, etc.
VIRGIN CLASSICS 2121492 [74:08]
Experience Classicsonline

This is the third CD in what appears to be a continuing, albeit very slow-moving, Virgin Classics series of Boccherini’s music from Europa Galante: they have already recorded the String Quintets, Op.25/1, 4 and 6 and the Minuet of Op.11/5, reissued at mid price on 5 03408 2, and the Guitar Quintets ‘Fandango’, G448, ‘La ritirata di Madrid’, G453 and Op.24/6, G194 on 5 45607 2. Surprisingly, the CD of the String Quintets is still in the catalogue at full price as well as at mid-price; make sure you don’t pay over the odds when ordering.

That first volume of String Quintets appeared back in 2001, when Christopher Fifield thought that their performances ‘should do much to widen the appeal of this extraordinary music’ (see review). The recording reappeared at mid price in 2007, a reissue which John Sheppard recommended strongly (see review). The Guitar Quintets, though listed in the booklet which accompanies the new CD, appear not to have been submitted for review in the UK and are not currently listed by online suppliers.

In any case, the Guitar Quintets are well served on inexpensive recordings: the classic Narciso Yepes/Melos Quartet version of Nos. 4, 7 and 9 (sadly bumped up from the bargain basement to mid price, DG Originals 477 7112) and a complete set on three separate budget price Harmonia Mundi Express CDs from Richard Savino and the Artaria Quartet (G.448-450 on HMX395 7026; G.445-7 on HMX 395 7039 and G.451-3 and Giuliani Gran Quintetto on HMX 395 7069).

The music on the new recording may not be as powerful as the Guitar Quintets - la ritirate di Madrid is especially dramatic - or as immediate in its appeal as the ‘Boccherini Minuet’ on the earlier String Quintets CD, but it is very well worth hearing. If you thought of Boccherini’s works as the musical equivalent of Meissen figurines, the very first track, the opening movement of the String Quintet, G.355, No.91 in Gérard’s catalogue, will help to change your mind.

Even the current Oxford Companion to Music perpetuates the description of Boccherini as ‘Haydn’s wife, and stresses as characteristic his ‘sweet cantabile melodies.’ It’s true that much of Boccherini’s music is more overtly galant in style than Haydn’s, but this Quintet is music of some depth and it receives a performance to match.

Europa Galante and its director Fabio Biondi have gained a not entirely undeserved reputation for going hell for leather in some music, but they perform this opening adagio ma non tanto with great sensitivity. They play the second movement, allegro assai, vigorously but not recklessly. The minuetto third movement may lack the charm of the famous Boccherini Minuet; it would be an exaggeration to say that it is to that dance form as Ravel’s la Valse is to its Viennese model, but the music has a sharper edge than most minuets and the performance brings that element out splendidly. The presto finale, too, has some stormier moments, again well brought out in this performance.

Toussaint Loviko’s notes rightly describe this work as a masterpiece and Europa Galante treat it as such; it’s amazing that it has never before been recorded. If nothing else here is quite of that standard, it is all well worth hearing and, of course, there is a wide variety of formats, varying in size from the closing String Trio, No.22, the only work here in a major key, which forms a genial close to the CD, to the String Sextet No.4 which is the second item. The music spans some twenty years of Boccherini’s composing career, too, from 1772, when he was already working in Spain, to 1792.

It’s tempting but ultimately fruitless to see the ill health which dogged Boccherini in his later years as the cause of the darker moments which emerge in Quintet No.91 and in the third movement, andante flebile, of String Quartet No.56. There’s no overt programme here, as there is, say, in the third movement of Beethoven’s a minor Quartet, Op.132, with its allusions to the composer’s recent serious illness, but something inspired Boccherini to rework the Quando corpus morietur - when the body dies - from his Stabat Mater into what the notes aptly describe as ‘the undulating, beautifully expressive theme’ of this movement. It may not literally bring tears to the eyes, as the flebile direction implies, but it is very expressive.

Europa Galante have already proved themselves to be able interpreters of Boccherini’s music, not only on the two chamber music CDs mentioned above, but also on Improvisata, on which they bring the house down with a performance of his Sinfonia No.6, La casa del diavolo (Virgin 3634302 - which has been reviewed four times on Musicweb; this review has a link to the others). If anything, their performances here are even more impressive. With first-rate recording, an extremely informative booklet, translated into comprehensible and idiomatic English, I hope that we shan’t have to wait so long for their next foray into Boccherini for Virgin Classics.

Brian Wilson 


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