Luigi BOCCHERINI (1743-1805)
Symphony in C, G.515, op.37 no.1 (1786) [13:35]
Symphony in D minor, G.517, op.37 no.3 (1787) [19:40]
Symphony in A, G.518, op.37 no.4 (1787) [17:50]
Symphony in C minor, G.519, op.41 (1788) [16:54]
Symphony in D, G.520, op.42 (1789) [18:19]
Symphony (Overture) in D, G.521, op.43 (1790) [5:50]
Symphony in D minor, G.522, op.45 (1792) [14:48]
New Berlin Chamber Orchestra/Michael Erxleben
rec. Funkhaus Berlin, May-June 1992. DDD
PHOENIX EDITION PE460 [51:05 + 55:51]
As the date makes clear, these are oldish recordings, part of a series of five double-discs reissued in striking covers - paintings by William Oxer - by Austrian label Phoenix, following their recent C.P.E. Bach Edition (review of the volume showcasing Bach's slightly earlier symphonies). No indication is given anywhere that the recordings have been touched up in any way, in which case the original technicians did a very good job - sound quality is better than many recent recordings.
The CDs were originally released separately in 1993 by Capriccio, who then re-issued them as a double-disc set in 2002. Three years later they appeared again in the label's 10-disc boxed set commemorating the 200th anniversary of Boccherini's death - see review.
The Symphonies are listed in the booklet as nos. 13-20, which is unhelpful - the notes themselves explain that Boccherini had previously written three sets of six prior to these: his op.12 of 1771, G.503-8 (including his best-known, so-called 'Casa del Diavolo', published around 1776 as his op.16!), op.21 of 1775, G.493-8 and op.35 of 1782, G.509-14. The G numbers, from Yves Gérard's 1969 catalogue, are the best guide, and thankfully also given. G.516 is believed destroyed in the Second World War.
The works are lightly scored for a pair of oboes, bassoons, horns and strings, with the addition of a flute in G.517 and G.518. The three on the first CD are as much concertante works as symphonic, although Boccherini nevertheless labelled them Symphonies and laid them out in the standard allegro-minuet-andante-allegro arrangement. On the second disc, the slightly later works are more noticeably symphonic in the style of Haydn, Mozart or J C Bach, apart from the overture-style G.521, which is a mere six minutes long, yet still divided into three sections, given a separate opus number and listed by Boccherini as a 'sinfonia' like the the other three.
The op.37 works are lighter, less original fare, but typically Boccherinian in their elegance, wit, mellifluousness and rococo. G.519, G.520 and G.522 are truly symphonic and directly comparable to those of Haydn. The notes quote French composer Jean-Baptiste Cartier (1765-1841): "If God wanted to speak to mankind through music, he would do it through the works of Haydn; but if he wanted to listen to music himself, he would choose Boccherini." Cartier probably had in mind Boccherini's chamber works rather than his symphonies, which history has shown to fall short of Haydn's admittedly superlative ideals. Nonetheless, to state, as Stanley Sadie does in the New Grove, that Boccherini's op.43, for example, is "marred however by an excessive symmetry of phrase-structure", is to listen pedantically with the mind rather than the heart: all Boccherini's Symphonies are very attractive, enjoyable works, the best of which - such as G.519 and G.522 - rate easily above lesser Haydn and Mozart.
The works are given sensitive, tasteful accounts by the New Berlin Chamber Orchestra under Michael Erxleben, comparing favourably with other recordings, including the complete set of symphonies released over a decade ago by CPO (999401-2), even though the timings are hardly generous. Unfortunately no biographical information on performers is provided in the booklet: photos show Erxleben and the Orchestra as they were twenty years ago! Erxleben is still teaching and performing, though his last recordings (as a violinist) date back half a dozen years now; the NBCO, meanwhile, seems to have disbanded or renamed itself around a decade ago. Otherwise notes are fairly informative, although the translations from German into English are not always precise.
There is a fairly unobtrusive editing join in the finale of G.515, which turns out to be one of several dotted about the recordings. They are regrettable, but do not really detract from the music.
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Sensitive, tasteful accounts in sound quality better than many recent recordings.