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Hyperion Records

CDA67287 - Boccherini: Cello Quintets, Vol. 1

Recording details: March 2001
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: January 2002
Total duration: 61 minutes 53 seconds


'To have this fascinating music vividly recorded in such fine performances, both polished and refreshing, with Richard Lester a perfect partner for the prize-winning Vanbrugh Quartet, makes this an ideal sampler' (Gramophone)

'Boccherini has never had it so good … the Vanbrugh gives performances it would be hard to beat' (BBC Music Magazine)

'The Vanbrugh and Lester create an extraordinarily sweet, warm, smooth tone' (American Record Guide)

'The performances are highly polished, full of zest and finely recorded. An excellent release' (International Record Review)

'This is spirited and vigorous chamber music, performed with gusto' (Classic FM Magazine)

'Intonation is in the centre of every note, the unanimity and balance between the instruments is impeccable, while the choice of tempos seems well-nigh ideal. Hyperion's sound quality complements their elegant performances. Highly recommended' (The Strad)

'The Vanbrughs make an alluring case for the three works here' (The Irish Times)

'The partnership is both diverting and eloquent, with Lester matching perfectly the qualities of the Vanbrugh … There’s so much to enjoy' (The Northern Echo)

'on trouvera ici la meilleure initiation aux quintettes de Boccherini' (Répertoire, France)

'Le Quatuor Vanbrugh auquel s’est joint l’excellent Richard Lester, montre une belle homogénéite de timbres et un art consommé dans l’agencement des différents plans sonores voulus par le compositeur. Un ensemble enthousiaste' (Classica, France)

Cello Quintets, Vol. 1
Amoroso  [5'30]
Rondo: Andante  [7'12]
Adagio cantabile  [4'38]
Moderato  [5'36]

Before Boccherini settled into the life of a composer he was a virtuoso cellist, and it was during his employment in the court of King Carlos III that he started writing cello quintets for himself to perform with the quartet already in residence. The combination of quintet with two cellos freed one of them from the obligation to provide the bass line, so Boccherini was able to exploit the instrument's full range and write for an ensemble of five soloists. He was able to further develop this sound when later employed by the cello-playing Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, where his quintets with two cellos were especially welcomed. And so were written a magnificent series of works combining lively, robust passages with elegant, suave melodic writing, and passionate driving rhythm with sweet seductive passages, all underpinned by rich five-part harmony.

It should be noted that track three of this disc is the 'Boccherini Minuet' in its original guise. Now in its sixteenth year, the RTE Vanbrugh Quartet is firmly established as one of Europe's most successful string quartets, and on this disc they are joined by Richard Lester, one of Britain's most outstanding cellists, co-principal cellist of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and member of The Florestan Trio.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Luigi Boccherini’s career divides into two contrasting, unequal parts: the young virtuoso performer giving way, after his arrival in Spain in 1768, to a more settled existence as a composer. He was born into an artistic family: his father, Leopoldo, was a double bass player employed at the Capella Palatina in the small city-state of Lucca; his brother Giovanni Gastone became a noted opera librettist, writing texts for Salieri and Haydn; and one of his sisters, Maria Ester, was a celebrated ballerina. After a period of study in Rome came three extended trips to Vienna, where father and son played in the Court Opera orchestra. On the second of these, in 1760/61, Luigi composed his first two collections of chamber music, the Op 1 trios and the Op 2 string quartets. Op 2 is headed by a powerful work in C minor, far more ambitious than any quartet Haydn had written at this date. By 1764 the twenty-one-year-old Boccherini was back in Lucca, but spent the earlier part of the next year on an extended Italian concert tour.

Though valued in his home city as a performer and composer, Lucca was too small a musical centre to provide sufficient scope and reward for his talents. His father’s death in 1766 may also have loosened his ties with his birthplace. Later that year he left with a fellow Luccan, the violinist Filippo Manfredi, for Genoa, Nice, and then Paris, where they stayed for several months. Both players had success at the famous Concert Spirituel and Boccherini, already known in Paris through the publication there of his early quartets and trios, was able to establish his fame as a composer of chamber music, writing six sonatas for keyboard and violin, dedicated to the celebrated harpsichordist Mme Brillon de Jouy.

In 1768 Boccherini, still in Manfredi’s company, travelled on to Madrid, and in 1770 he received a salaried appointment as cellist and composer to Don Luis, brother of King Carlos III. He had already dedicated a set of string quartets to Don Luis and was now obliged to write exclusively for his patron. The advantage was that he could then have this music published, and most of his output for Don Luis appeared in print in Paris or Vienna. Already on Don Luis’s musical staff when Boccherini joined it was the Font String Quartet – a family ensemble of father and three sons. The string quintet with two cellos, an unusual medium that Boccherini was to make his own, thus came about almost by accident. ‘I have here been always under the necessity of writing for two violoncellos’, wrote Boccherini in 1796 to the Paris-based publisher and composer Pleyel, giving him permission to arrange his quintets for a more popular grouping of instruments. But despite this seeming lack of enthusiasm for a medium for which he composed well over a hundred works, we can see that it suited him perfectly, in the way that the string quartet suited Haydn, or the quintet with two violas Mozart. To have two cellos frees one of them from the obligation to provide the bass line, so Boccherini is able to exploit the instrument’s full range, something he does in the most resourceful, imaginative way, balancing his treatment of the cellos with comparable prominence given not only to the first violin, but also to the second violin and viola, so that we are listening to an ensemble of five soloists.

The E major Quintet G275 of 1771 (the first two sets of six quintets were both written during this year) illustrates this perfectly. Instead of the usual sonata allegro, the first movement is a moderately paced Amoroso, muted and sensuous. Over a throbbing bass, the violins sing sweetly in thirds, answered immediately by viola and first cello. Boccherini thus establishes at the very start a sense of dialogue – the conversational manner that allows each instrument to develop its role. The music becomes more reflective and pensive, and then the opening idea returns. But now comes a surprise; the two cellos begin a closely integrated duet, using much quicker notes than we’ve heard so far – the effect is like a sudden nocturnal breeze. As the viola repeats the bass notes, the cellos climb higher and higher, before we return to the movement’s expected course, as though nothing had happened.

The second-placed Allegro e con spirito is more the kind of piece one would have expected as an opening movement – it makes a wonderfully bright, energetic contrast to the Amoroso. The harmony, as so often with Boccherini, is extremely simple, but there’s a wide variety of different phrase-lengths and styles of dialogue, and a quite fascinating range of different textures, with staccato and legato together, repeated notes and syncopations, brilliant passagework and lyrical melodies. The second subject is a cello melody played in the highest register; it is heard twice (so that both players get a chance to perform it), separated by a shadowy minor-key episode.

The A major minuet, the piece that is inseparable from the name of Boccherini and is the paradigm of suave rococo elegance (note the irony of its use in the 1950s film The Ladykillers), relies for its effect on the memorable syncopated violin melody, and an alluring, muted texture – the lower three instruments plucked while the second violin contributes a constant, smooth, shimmering background. The trio provides contrast by bringing the inner parts to the fore, but is unable entirely to forget the syncopated motif of the minuet. The finale is an extended rondo – the theme, marked ‘sotto voce’, circumscribed in range and harmonically quite static, provides a resting point between the episodes, each of which inhabits a different tonal region, featuring different instruments. First it is the turn of the viola and first cello, next an episode moving from E minor to G major, with second cello and second violin rising to prominence, and finally, in the key of C sharp minor, the first violin enjoys the limelight.

Boccherini’s association with Don Luis lasted until the latter’s death in 1785; after this the king continued to pay part of his salary as a pension, he found other patrons among the Spanish nobility and, indeed, continued to live in Madrid for the rest of his life. But his most important patronage, and the stimulus to continue his phenomenal production of chamber music, came from abroad. He had already sent a set of quartets to the cello-playing Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, and received, in 1783, the most flattering personal letter in reply. Early in 1786 he learned of his appointment as composer to the prince, who was shortly to become king. Boccherini, it seems, never visited Prussia. His obligations to the king were like an ongoing commission, for which he received a salary and was expected to provide a steady supply of new chamber works. Quintets with two cellos were understandably especially popular with the king, and form the majority of the compositions Boccherini sent to Germany.

The F minor and G minor quintets on this disc were both composed in 1789, the same year that Mozart wrote the first of his three ‘Prussian’ quartets, and two years after Haydn had dedicated his six Op 50 quartets to the new king. The two works were singled out by Boccherini in a letter to Pleyel. ‘I particularly recommend to you two quintets which may be found in Op 42 [in F minor and G minor] … which are my favourites. I do not know whether they will deserve to be your favourites too, but as you are a real connoisseur of careful work, I hope so’. The two quintets were also well known to the violinist Pierre Baillot (1771-1842), who was probably the most knowledgeable Boccherini enthusiast of the nineteenth century; he quotes from both of them in L’art du violon (1834). The quintets have one or two features in common, in the way the opening theme is presented in imitative counterpoint (the same melody in different voices, at different times), and the energetic establishing of the relative major key early in the proceedings.

In the F minor Quintet G348 there is a string of ideas in this relative key (A flat major) including a haunting melody that recurs, still fixed in this same key, towards the end of the development section. In the recapitulation the opening motif, so summarily dismissed at the start of the movement, now dominates; a long passage based on it over a pedal C in the bass builds a powerful sense of tension that’s released in a flurry of violin demisemiquavers.

The lively major-key minuet builds its texture gradually by having the instruments enter in turn with the main theme. The idea that dominates the trio is treated very differently, the instruments all playing the same rhythm and the music switching between F major and F minor. The gracious, formal Adagio alternates highly ornamented solos for violin and cello. After we’ve heard the leisurely exposition twice, however, Boccherini does something quite unexpected: the martial rhythm that had ended the exposition is repeated in a succession of ferociously disruptive diminished-seventh chords. Eventually we find ourselves back in the vicinity of F minor, the quintet’s home key, ready for the tranquil F major rondo theme of the finale to steal in. This rondo has a lot in common with that in the E major quintet, though it is of more compact structure. As in the earlier work, there’s a slightly static but memorable main theme, with more varied, spirited music in the intervening episodes. Here the rondo theme is given delightful additions on its reappearance and the last time it comes round it is extended most beautifully. The first episode introduces an exciting eruption of quick violin triplets; the second one, back in F minor, features the darker sounds of the quintet’s lower voices, interrupted by an echo of the violin’s desperate flight of fancy from the first movement.

The opening Moderato of the G minor Quintet G351 has two main ideas – the smooth motif at the beginning, heard first in austere two-part counterpoint, and a little three-note repeated idea that makes its first appearance as Boccherini prepares to modulate away from the opening minor tonality. By introducing one or both of these ideas in a variety of different contexts, he produces a movement of unusually close-knit structure. He may not develop his ideas in the intensive way that Haydn does, but the sense of unity here is powerful, and, as in the F minor quintet, and in a way reminiscent of Mozart’s minor-key music, he uses the return of minor tonality in the latter stages of the movement to heighten the emotional impact.

The minuet is again in the major key. Typically for Boccherini there’s an alternation of lively, robust passages with elegant, suave melodic writing. The beautiful, quiet concluding phrase sounds very Mozartian to a modern listener, but could Mozart perhaps have been inspired to write such phrases by his older contemporary? The trio is scored as an expressive cello duet, the viola providing the bass and the full quintet only entering at the cadence points.

As with the Amoroso movement in the early quintet, the Larghetto amoroso of G351 gives answering phrases the character of a dialogue, immediately established by the opening exchanges between violin and cello. Sometimes the voices introduce more intense and earnest matters, and there’s plenty of subtle, conversational counterpoint, but it is a sweet seductive mood that prevails, underpinned by rich five-part harmony.

The G minor finale is not a rondo, but a compact, taut sonata movement. Baillot described it as ‘passionate and agitated’ and Boccherini maintains this character throughout, with constant changes of texture and dynamics, syncopated rhythms and a driving momentum. It seems typical of his sophisticated style, however, that such a forceful piece should end quietly, the agitation dying away in melancholy, rather than reaching a decisive, more predictable, conclusion.

Duncan Druce © 2002

Other albums in this series
'Boccherini: Cello Quintets, Vol. 2' (CDA67383)
Boccherini: Cello Quintets, Vol. 2
Buy by post £13.99 (ARCHIVE SERVICE) CDA67383  Archive Service  
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