boccherini string quintets mdg

Déjà Review: this review was first published in October 2001 and the recording is still available.

Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805)
String Quintet in D major, G339
Quartetto Secondo, G249
String Quintet in F major, G338
String Quintet in B flat major, G337
Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt
rec. 2000, Schloá Galerie Nordkirchen, Germany
MDG 6031040-2 [62]

Boccherini was born at Lucca (the Italian town famous for being the home of the Puccini family) in 1843, and before he reached the age of twenty he had become a celebrated virtuoso of the cello. His career thereafter was truly international: in 1769 at the age of twenty-six he moved to Madrid, where he remained for eighteen years, until he took up the position of ‘Composer of the Chamber’ at the Berlin court of Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. In 1797 he returned to Spain, but without firm patronage, and the unfortunate result was that the last years of his life were spent in poverty.

In common with other composers of the period, Boccherini was active in many types of music. Operas, symphonies, concertos, church music, and most especially chamber music all feature strongly in his creative output.

Boccherini wrote in excess of two hundred quintets for various combinations, including nearly one hundred for string ensembles. This enterprising collection on MDG features three quintets for the distinctive combination of two violins, viola, cello and double bass, plus a short single movement fragment for conventional string quartet. This latter piece, which is placed second in the programme, is typical of the composer, urbane and supremely well balanced in its approach to the medium.

The three quintets are the issue, however. Both the performances and the recorded sound do Boccherini proud, creating an ideal balance between atmosphere and detail. Thus the talents of the musicians, who are all members of the excellent Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, are heard to advantage in ensemble music of sophisticated style and imagination.

The question has to be, therefore: if this music is so civilised, why is it so little known? There can be only two answers. One is that in music familiarity breeds familiarity, and it is hard for composers and individual works to break through that barrier. The other is that there is a lot of very well crafted music, which sounds well but ultimately lacks the personality and penetration to establish a position in the repertory.

Where does Boccherini stand? There is only one way to find out, and that is to listen for yourself. Certainly the music is appealing and full of beautifully crafted touches. But it is tempting to suggest that in the end it adds up to rather less than the sum of the parts. All praise then to Ensemble Concertant Frankfurt, whose avowed policy is to resurrect little known music from the past. They do so with skill, imagination and true stylistic understanding.

Terry Barfoot

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