, July 2009
Some people are born under a lucky star. Others go through life alternating moments of good and bad fortune. The star of Alexandre Pierre François Boëly must have been a particularly faulty one, and every time this French composer needed a bit of light or solace, it seemed to be otherwise engaged. Everything about his career started out on the right track and then, due to some cruel irony of fate, took a wrong turn somewhere. Posterity was no more generous to him than his own epoch. Today his pieces are practically unknown, and their performance is very rare. And that is really to be lamented.
Many German Classical echoes can be found in the work of Boëly, who was born in 1785 and died in 1858. One of the best piano teachers in Paris, according to his colleague, the violinist and composer Pierre Baillot, Boëly lived in an uncertain and complicated era, had few of his compositions edited, and has largely been ostracized. His fascination with German musical tradition in general (and Beethoven in particular) can be perceived in crescendos coupled with impetuous chordal sequences, harmonic prolongations, huge dynamic contrasts, well-developed themes, formal clarity, and touching melodic lines.
The professionally limited life that befell Boëly, the indifference from his contemporaries, the insufficient recognition that plagues his work even today, shows in the composer’s writing, which has expressive power and a very well chiseled sense of drama, yet somehow never sounds truly exuberant or truly unworried. In the first sonata, for example, the thematic re-exposition, which should bring repose and the sensation of a safe port (which is usually what happens when the ear recognizes a passage), fails to bring comfort, having in fact the exact opposite effect, maybe due to the lack of a frankly conclusive gesture. An undercurrent of melancholy permeates every turn of phrase, making this music the perfect sort to listen to after a painful break-up or the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, such situations are more common than one would like, so this CD will come in handy. But even if your life is perfect and sunny as a summer day, it cannot hurt to get to know a fine composer, played with warmth and competence.
Fortepianist Christine Schornsheim captures the longing, the unfulfilled potential, the theatricality and innuendos, tempering them with fleeting moments of joy, which seem all the sadder for their sparseness. She plays with a spacious touch, and her flexible treatment of phrases is organic and controlled in just measure. Stylistically impeccable, Schornsheim is fully aware of the possibilities of the instruments she chose: two different Érard pianos, an 1808 grand for the sonatas and an 1802 square for the caprices. With a more percussive, darker sound than the modern piano, the instruments are indeed ideal for the music of Boëly. She explores with gusto the limits of dynamics, inflections, and timbral variety that these pianos can offer, with apt pedaling, sighing phrases, perfectly built arches, and virtuosic sections that never sound gratuitous. Her interpretation, glowing yet tender, is not only technically accomplished but completely in musical synchrony with the sort of sweet despondency that exudes from even the most brilliant moments of this beautiful music.
Overall, this is a remarkable CD, and it is made even better by the excellent liner notes (by Brigitte François-Sappey, Michael Latcham, and Christopher Clarke) that give us valuable information about Boëly’s life, the particular works included in the CD, and the fortepiano, being thoughtful enough to explain the differences between the two Érards. The quality of the recording itself is equally good, very live and resonant. Listening to Schornsheim’s sensitive performances of these forgotten gems, I could not help wishing that there really were an after life, and that wherever Boëly’s soul might be, he might be permitted to listen to his music, finally appreciated and performed as it deserves!