Boccherini: As Fresh As An April Breeze
The MHS Review 356 Vol 9, No 14 1985
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David M. Greene
Had Boccherini taken up his musician-father's instrument, the appreciators might have told us he was known as "the Small-Mouth Bass." (Boccherini Sr. played the contrabass fiddle, you see; and the plural of bocca (mouth) is bocche, and the suffix -ini is a diminutive-aw, to heck with it!)
In his notes to his recording of the op. 12 symphonies, Raymond Leppard remarks that for 150 years after his death Boccherini was preserved in human memory almost wholly on the basis of a single minuet (originating in the op. 13 E-major Quintet). Mr. Leppard might have added something about his being called by a contemporary "the wife of Haydn," a fact retailed by every compiler of a "music appreciation" text for juveniles. This sobriquet was intended to convey nothing scandalous about the relationship between the two men (poor Haydn had enough trouble with his lawful wife), but merely to suggest that Boccherini's music was something like Haydn's, only more "feminine," whatever that may mean. Had Boccherini taken up his musician-father's instrument, the appreciators might have told us he was known as "the Small-Mouth Bass." (Boccherini Sr. played the contrabass fiddle, you see; and the plural of bocca (mouth) is bocche, and the suffix -ini is a diminutive-aw, to heck with it!)
In a way, Boccherini and Haydn don't really have much in common: Haydn is known for his keyboard sonatas, trios, string quartets, and symphonies; Boccherini is not. (Although he wrote 83 string quartets, he is better known for his quintets, though I encountered somewhere recently an article suggesting that he may have had as much as Haydn to do with the development of the quartet form.) He wrote no piano trios and no solo keyboard works of any kind. But he did write at least 27 symphonies, no one of which has so far found a place in what is known as the "standard repertoire" -works that the supporters of symphony orchestras expect them to play, or else!
When he was 26, Lucca-born Luigi Boccherini, having tested the waters in Vienna and Paris, settled in Madrid, where, for the next couple of decades, he lived comfortably on royal and noble patronage. In 1767 a symphony was published in Paris attributed to "Bouqueriny"; most scholars now believe that, whoever the composer may have been, he was not our man. The oldest-known authentic Boccherini symphony (although he fails to list it in his own catalog) appeared in Venice about 1775. We accept it as his because he used it ten years earlier as an overture to a cantata called (in translation) "The Confederation of the Sabines with Rome" and again for his oratorio "Joseph Recognized." A miniature-it will be recalled that the Italian overture or sinfonia sired the symphony-it is the first work on this record, and, perhaps, a first recording.
The next four symphonies in the album have been available here on records before. As noted above, Raymond Leppard recorded the six symphonies of op. 12 (ca. 1776) with the Philharmonia Orchestra, and Angelo Ephrikian did likewise for the half-dozen of op. 35. (I use Boccherini's own numbering·, which sometimes conflicts with the numbers, if any, imposed by his publishers.) Both sets were listed in the Schwann catalog for about five years apiece, but neither, even in New York, was easy to find.
One of the two op. 2 Symphonies, the D-minor, subtitled "In the Devil's House", has enjoyed (for a Boccherini symphony) something like popularity, having appeared here in at least three recordings, including MHS 3309Z. It is a curious work, being based on the Don Juan legend, and drawing thematic material from Cluck's Don Juan ballet. The two final symphonies represent two-thirds of the known survivors from op. 37, unpublished in Boccherini's lifetime.
It is fashionable to criticize the Boccherini symphonies for not being "symphonic" enough. Yet they are praised for their melodiousness and their variety, and I myself have always found them as fresh as an April breeze. Cantilena, having now established itself as one of the best old-music groups around, has set out to unearth forgotten treasure, and has made this set exclusively available to members of the Society. I might suggest that Mr. Shepherd also explore the symphonies of Gaetano Brunetti, Boccherini's Italian colleague in Madrid, who surely must have influenced his fellow countryman. Years ago Newell Jenkins made some adorable records of Brunetti; I should like to hear some of that repertoire played as sparklingly and recorded as cleanly as this is.