Boccherini's stature as a great composer stands chiefly on his works for cello - these concertos, the cello sonatas, and above all the quintets for two violins, viola, and two cellos. The two performances by Tim Hugh and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, produced by Naxos, may not set the bar for interpretive brilliance, but Mr. Hugh plays beautifully, with excellent tone in his highest passages, and the price is right. If you haven't given Boccherini a listener's chance, these two CDs, sold separately, might open your ears.
What makes a great concerto? Foremost, I think, is the rich exploitation of the solo instrument's full musical possibilities for expression and for virtuosity. By that standard, Boccherini's concertos for cello are almost unequaled. Boccherini was himself a virtuosic cellist, noted for his ability to make sonorous sense of the instrument's highest range, often playing passages well into the viola's territory. Then there's the dialogue between the orchestra and the soloist, and again I think Boccherini excels. Perhaps he makes it too easy, too graceful, so that the listener is deceived by his effortlessness. Believe me, his technical resources - counterpoint, modulation, etc. - are superb. And of course, there's the bravura of the concerto, the ability to make an emotional impact on a listener. The concerto is the most audience-conscious of all forms; if you listen to these concertos without feeling touched and stirred, then my praise is all hollow and poor Luigi is a second-rater. Personally, however, I relish these cello concertos as much as any of Mozart's except perhaps the inimitable Clarinet Concerto.
Comparisons with Mozart and Haydn seem to be Boccherini's eternal fate. Perhaps I'm overenthusiastic for Boccherini now because I too neglected his music for most of my life. But I don't think so. Besides these cello concertos, I urge all music lovers to listen to the performances of the quintets by Europa Galante and of the Stabat Mater by Ensemble 415 with soprano Agnes Mellon.