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François-Adrien BOIELDIEU (1775-1834)
Overture “La Calife de Bagdad” [7:17]
Overture “Emma ou la Prisonnière” [6:40]
Overture “La Dame Blanche” [8:59]
Overture “Jean de Paris” [7:53]
Overture “Les Voitures versées” [4:57]
Overture “Ma Tante Aurore” [7:24]
Piano Concerto in F [26:08]
Nataša Veljkoviċ (piano)
Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana/Howard Griffiths
rec. 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano, Italy
CPO 555 244-2 [69:18]

I played a popular little game when I first had this disc for review. I called in a couple of colleagues, each highly respected in musicological circles, and asked them to guess the composer. Rossini and Mozart were proposed with the proviso that neither colleague believed that either composer actually had composed the music, but simply could not think of anyone else who could have possibly written such music with such brilliance. And that little game was played barely a week after both colleagues (and myself) had attended a public performance of the Boieldieu Harp Concerto, unquestionably his best-known (only-known?) work.

Such is the nature of Boieldieu’s music; it is crafted with every bit as much authority and distinction as any of the great composers of the late 18th/early 19th century, but employs such a chameleon-like musical voice that if it has a distinctive character, it is wholly obscured by one which is not so much derived from as inspired by that of Boieldieu’s more noteworthy contemporaries that it passes as their work. This is not plagiarism nor even imitation. It is a highly skilled composer recognising what the public likes, and pandering to it with all the skill at his disposal. In the light of this, one is intrigued by Boieldieu’s own comment; "I believe that one can write very good music by imitating Mozart, Haydn, Cimarosa, etc., etc.. They always speak to the heart, the spirit; they always speak the language of sentiment and reason. But Rossini, whose music is filled with catchy ideas, with bon mots, cannot be imitated: one must steal from him outright or be altogether silent". Be that as it may, the Overture to Jean de Paris is possibly more Rossini than Rossini himself, while the long-drawn-out crescendo in the Overture to La Dame Blanche would confuse even Rossini himself as to its true paternity. Mozart, too, might have had an uncanny sense of déjà vu with the Overture to Ma Tante Aurore, while we might even accuse Beethoven of borrowing his ideas for ending works from the Overture to Emma ou la Prisonnière.
Putting the fun of guessing composers and identifying parallels to one side, this excellent disc provides an entirely justified survey of a composer largely overlooked and, at times, mocked by history. At the end of the day, this is very good music, masterly written and showing consummate command of orchestration. Howard Griffiths is clearly a committed Boieldieuian whose sympathies for this music are manifestly obvious in every bar. Its charming melodies, its delightful effects (such as the echoing passagework of the Overture to La Dame Blanche) and its often ingenious use of instrumental colour are allowed full reign under Griffiths’ enthusiastic and insightful direction, and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana plays its heart out for him. This may not be one of Europe’s most famous orchestras, but its playing here is positively inspired, and is greatly enhanced by an unusually full-bodied and vivid recording from the CPO engineers.

While the overtures show Boieldieu pandering to the Rossini-mania of early 19th century Paris, the Piano Concerto is a very different work. Boieldieu’s modern day reputation is sustained by his Harp Concerto, but the Piano Concerto, composed in 1792 almost a decade before the one for harp, is certainly worth an airing on the strength of this effervescent performance, even if it lacks the maturity and polish of the later work. The first of its two movements is very much the weaker, and opens with a somewhat predictable orchestral ritornello which seems to be fighting with itself to find a clear idea to pass on to the soloist. There is an uncomfortable sparseness in the orchestration, too, which Griffiths brushes aside in his vigorous pacing and nice sense of overall shape. But one does experience a sense of relief when the piano eventually puts in an appearance, for it seems to focus Boieldieu’s mind on higher things. Again we can possibly find some gestures which remind us of his contemporaries, but if the 17-year-old Boieldieu had a distinctive voice it is in the easy juxtaposition of florid display and quasi-operatic gesture; things which suit the piano perfectly.

A former student of both Paul Badura-Skoda and Rudolf Firkusny, Serbian pianist Nataša Veljkoviċ is now a little past her half-century, yet this is playing shot through with youthful vigour and freshness, easily switching between virtuoso display (if ever a Concerto underlined the need to have absolute mastery over scalework, this is it), grandstanding gesture and pathos. She has, on disc at least, established something of a reputation for opening the public’s ears to overlooked and largely unremarked concertos by forgotten composers of the 19th century, and her advocacy of what we might describe as this unchallenged repertory is clearly inspired by a belief that such music is fully deserving of a public airing. She does not try to “sell” this Boieldieu Concerto by any extravagant gesture, but allows it to exude its special qualities of grace and charm in happy partnership with Griffiths and his orchestral players. With the first movement cadenza she is positively frisky as she skips freely over a plethora of ideas not all of which seem entirely convincing but provide on this recording a brilliant exposé of gifted pianism.

The second movement comprises a set of variations on the delightfully naïve melody so eloquently given out at the start. In all the variations, it is the piano which dominates (the second, for example, presents a tireless tirade of right hand scales delivered here with amazing insouciance), and with Veljkoviċ in gloriously fluent vein and Griffiths providing gentle, often imperceptible, but always sympathetic support, in addition to a delightful piece of music, we have some truly enchanting music-making.

Marc Rochester


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