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8.557589 - BOCCHERINI: Cello Concertos, Nos. 9-12
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Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805): Cello Concertos • 3
Concertos, Nos. 9–12

Luigi Boccherini was born in Tuscany in 1743, in the beautiful old walled town of Lucca and died in Madrid in 1805. His was a cultured family. His elder brother Giovanni Gastone, distinguished as a dancer and choreographer, was also a poet and wrote opera libretti for Salieri, among others, and the text of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio Il ritorno di Tobia. His sister, also a dancer in Vienna, married Onorato Viganò and was the mother of the famous dancer and choreographer Salvatore Viganò. His father was a professional double bass player and Luigi Boccherini himself made his début as a cellist at the age of thirteen. In 1757 he went to study in Rome but had only been there a few months when both he and his father were summoned to Vienna to play in the court orchestra. Although barely fifteen years old, his performance apparently made a deep impression on the Viennese musical establishment which suggests that this reportedly very amiable and affable young virtuoso had plenty of opportunity to shine as a soloist in concertos and in chamber music.

From this time onwards Boccherini’s life was a very busy one and involved much travelling. He returned to Lucca on various occasions, finally, in 1764, taking up a position there in the musical establishment and retaining his connection there for the following three years. In 1766 he embarked on an extended concert tour with the Lucca violinist Filipo Manfredi, reaching Paris in 1767. Here he had some of his works published and appeared with Manfredi at the Concert Spirituel, among other engagements. It was seemingly in 1768 that Boccherini and Manfredi travelled to Madrid, very probably with the promise of enthusiastic patronage from the Spanish court. Here Boccherini’s principal patron was the Spanish Infante Don Luis for whom he wrote many new works. In the circumstances in which he found himself he was able to continue his particular interest in chamber music, as shown in his first Paris publications, embarking on his famous series of string quintets, with a concertante first cello part.

Boccherini followed the Infante Don Luis to Avila, after the latter’s marriage earned official disapproval, but after the death of the Infante in 1785 he was granted a pension of half his salary by the King. In 1786 he was appointed chamber composer to the heir to the Prussian throne, an enthusiastic amateur cellist, who in the following year succeeded his uncle as Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia. There is no record, however, of any visit by Boccherini to the court in Berlin. He sought a renewal of his appointment in 1798, after the death of the king, but this was not granted. According to Boccherini family tradition he was offered a teaching position at the new Conservatoire in Paris, where his music enjoyed considerable esteem, but graciously declined the offer. In Madrid, however, he had for some years enjoyed the support of private patrons and was employed by the French ambassador to Spain, Lucien Bonaparte, who reached Madrid late in 1800.

Throughout his life Boccherini pursued his concert career with enormous energy and at the same time wrote a quite unbelievable amount of music. In his last years, no longer playing but still composing, he appeared to be living in reduced circumstances, in some financial difficulties and no doubt suffering from the recent death of his second wife and also of two daughters. He died in 1805.

Boccherini made an incomplete thematic catalogue of his own works but this was destroyed in the turmoil of the Spanish civil war. Only in 1969 did Yves Gérard publish a new catalogue of the complete oeuvre, listing eleven concertos. The twelfth cello concerto was only discovered in 1987 in a library in Naples. The twelve known cello concertos are all probably quite youthful works, written before he settled in Madrid. These works exploit virtuoso technique, a prominent feature of which is the use of extremely fast passage-work in the very highest registers of the instrument, sometimes with additional double-stopping to provide the performer with even greater difficulties.

Concerto No. 9 in B flat major starts with an Allegro moderato that is a little capricious in form. The themes at the outset are presented in the usual manner by the orchestral tutti and then by the solo cello. After the briefest of modulatory development sections the main theme is brought back for the recapitulation. Unusually, however, this is interrupted early on by some new themes presented in various keys before the earlier themes weave their way back into the orchestral texture for the conventional recapitulation.

The almost hymnic Handelian opening of the following Andante grazioso contrasts effectively with the hectic passagework of the preceding movement. The amiable tune of the final Rondo is set against various episodic themes, notably one with an almost clucking hen-like two-note figure which sends the solo cello soaring up to a remarkably high sustained note followed by a dramatic pause. This theatrical gesture, presented twice in the course of the movement, plays an important part in articulating the clear contrasts of material in this well-crafted finale.

Concerto No. 10 in D major is on a relatively grand scale, its first movement sumptuous in melodic content, and with some of the broader thematic gestures which help to support the larger architecture. A characteristic of this whole work, which is immediately striking in the opening tutti, is the prominence given to the oboes and horns which, with the bassoon, often accompany the solo cello instead of the usual upper strings. The Andante lentarello in D minor begins with a touching theme on orchestral strings which is then repeated on the wind instruments while the solo cello enters surreptitiously, for a brief moment more in the spirit of chamber music. In the Finale the orchestra really comes into its own. The two orchestral tuttis which frame the sonata-form structure feature characteristic horn calls echoed by two oboes in a most colourful fashion. This attractive concerto shows Boccherini experimenting with orchestral sounds and exploring new relationships between the orchestra and the soloist.

Among all Boccherini’s works the Concerto No. 11 in C major is unique in that he scores it for solo cello and two oboes, two trumpets, strings and, most unusually, no horns. This gives a bright, almost ceremonial quality to the sound and influences the way Boccherini writes, as we hear in the opening tutti with its clear harmonies and slower harmonic rhythm. The Largo cantabile is also extremely unusual. It is scored for unaccompanied cello but with two brief orchestral passages to begin and close the movement. The long central cello section features a double-stopping technique whereby a florid melody is accompanied by pulsing quavers in the lower part, a very demanding if less extrovert kind of virtuosity. The Finale, Allegro comodo, is another free version of what we might be tempted to call sonata form. Its two main themes for orchestra and cello respectively do travel through various keys in the middle or development section, but when we expect a recapitulation in the tonic key Boccherini shifts into C minor with quite new material, only returning briefly to a fragment of the earlier themes right at the very end of the work to round everything off in C major.

The recently discovered Concerto No. 12 in E flat major, the first modern performance of which was given in Vienna in 1987, may be of a later date (possibly 1772) than the other concertos. Whether this be the case or not, the music itself, less encumbered with ornamental detail, hints at a movement away from rococo mannerisms towards the clearer lines of the later classical style. In the first movement Boccherini achieves a longer arching phrase articulated through internal development of the simpler melodic line. The cello writing is still fearsomely high but virtuosity does not obtrude itself here or obscure the structural progress of the music. The Largo is Boccherini at his most emotionally intense. The orchestral introduction with its dotted rhythms and striking contrasts of piano and forte is followed by a heartfelt cantilena for the cello. The final Allegro is a delightful Rondo, its principal theme simple and unpretentious, almost like a popular tune. The textures here are light and airy and there is also a clarity and inevitability about the form with delicate harmonic shadings in the episodes and, unusually but most aptly in this case, no cadenza to interrupt this movement’s easy flow towards its happy conclusion.

John Marlow Rhys


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