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EXPLORING MUSIC : Give Us Five, Mr. Boccherini

The MHS Review 392 Vol. 11 No. 14 1987

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Frank Cooper


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With operas entitled An Italian in Algiers and The Turk in Italy to his credit, Rossini might have gone a step further with one on Luigi Boccherini and named it An Italian in Spain. If Rossini had known of the rise and fall of his illustrious predecessor's life, he might well have been inspired to create another masterpiece of theater based on it.

From Lucca to Rome and back as an or­chestral cellist, on to Vienna and Paris as a famous soloist, then into the service (somehow) of both King Frederick Wilhelm II of Prussia and the Infante Don Luis of Spain (with friendship along the way with no less a diplomat than Lucien Bonaparte of France), finally to spend the last years of his life "in the shadow of poverty," Boccherini knew firsthand the joys of popularity and patronage and the miseries of ultimate obscurity. His sprite­ly, tuneful works, however, reveal nothing of the ironic twist his life took.

Boccherini's quintets in particular, like many of Mozart's quartets, have the great quality, I think, of existing apart from the world of their composer's day-by-day ex­istence. They are not autobiographical; on­ly on rare occasions do any of them open a door to the nonmusical realities of Boc­cherini 's environment. Such an occaion is provided by the present release.

The tantalizing glimpse comes with the fourth movement of the Quintet no. 9, "La Ritirata di Madrid." In it we are treated to "a sonic evocation of life in the Spanish metropolis with the night-watch on parade.'' A theme of Schubert-like simplici­ty is varied 12 times, reaching a climax in the middle of the movement and diminishing thereafter to the end as the group of soldiers vanishes into the distance. The "retreat" of the title refers to a trumpet call which signals the lower­ing of the flag at sunset.

In its original guise the movement (call­ed "Night Music of the Streets of Madrid") occurs in Boccherini's String Quintet, op. 30, no. 6 of 1780. Here, we hear it as the composer reconceived it in 1799 for guitar and string quartet. The slice of life it presents is heightened by our performers, who extend the ending to the point of in­audibility. This might seem silly if Boc­cherini had been satisfied only to depict the scene, but his musical taste was such that no compromise in musical quality was allowed. As in the case of the preceding three movements, the"'writing has all the finesse and charm expected of a master.

Similar skill marks the Quintet no. 3, composed a year earlier than its recorded partner. The music already existed as a piano quintet; following "common prac­tice," the composer recast his previous in­spiration as a work for guitar and string quartet, possibly to meet the terms of a commission from the guitar-playing Mar­quis Benavente. An exquisite feature is the use in the initial and final movements of a special performance technique, flautato, which results in a peculiarly flute-like sound on bowed string instruments! One contemporary commentator describes it as producing an effect "like a poem, like a dream and a fragrance."

Hearing such lovely music played so tell­ingly has one drawback: The listener is apt to crave more! Boccherini's "quintet­tential" art (some call it rococo, others classical) boasts such original ideas as to sound like no one else. With the same tonal system used by Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart, Boccherini manages to resemble only himself, thus passing one of the tests of mastery.

Perhaps it is just a matter of time before we are permitted to know him and his works more fully. At present, no edition of his complete works exists and only a relative handful of his scores have found their way into our concert halls and onto recordings. Thus, those at hand are welcome indeed.

Review of Volume II of the Guitar Quintets by LUIGI BOCCHERINI

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