...it stands to reason that you might like Luigi Boccherini as well. He was an eminently successful composer of the same era (1743-1805), a famous cello virtuoso and a rival in fame to Haydn amongst his contemporaries. But he's also had a reputation as a lightweight - Haydn's Wife, he was mockingly called - and he's lacked the modern symphonic advocacy that Mozart has enjoyed. Besides, his music is outside my own performing repertoire, which concentrates on the 16th & 17th centuries. So I've ignored him. I've skipped concerts featuring his works. 'There's only so much listening time in a life,' I've thought...
...but sometimes a single brilliant performance can compel a guy to open his ears. That's what has happened to me with old Luigi. A few weeks ago I came upon this CD of Boccherini's String Quintets, performed by an ensemble I admire greatly, Europa Galante, led by my favorite Italian Baroque violinist, Fabio Biondi. I was also intrigued by the possibilities of the string quintet with two cellos, which reminded me of the rich bass timbres of the viola da gamba quintets of Elizabethan and Jacobean England. So I ordered it... and the rest is a tale of extravagance, with me starring as the spendthrift who bought eleven CDs of Boccherini in one order.
The vigorous delicacy and sonorous transparency (how do you like those oxymorons?) of Europa Galante suits Boccherini's musical concepts perfectly. Harmonies and rhythmic patterns need to shift in these quintets with Italianate grace rather than Austrian earnestness.
Boccherini spent most of his composing years in Spain, in the same courtly ambiance in which Goya painted his early portraits. There are atmospheric movements in many of his pieces - fandangos and minuets with castanets - that might easily sound like background music for a Spanish travelogue except that Boccherini handles them with concentration and complexity. There are also movements of "Sturm und Drang" as stormy and drangy as any of Haydn's best; clearly Boccherini was aware of and influenced by the Mannheim school. Then there are moments of exuberance that carry me back to Vivaldi, to the manly modes of the high Baroque before the perfumed Rococo became the fashion.
Boccherini was himself a cellist, and he stretched the capacities of his favored instrument to the maximum, sending the cello into its highest register above the viola for extended passages. I'm sure I hear a murmur of cellists shouting Hey! How come it took you so long! I'll wager every cellist in the world keeps a bust of Boccherini on her/his mantelpiece. Beyond these wonderfully rich quintets, there's a virtuoso's repertoire of cello sonatas, cello concertos, and for good measure a set of quintets with double bass. Europa Galante has also recorded a disk of Boccherini's string quintets with guitar as the fifth voice. Glorious!
The comparison with Mozart is inevitable. Boccherini wrote nothing, as far as I know, to match Mozart's greatest operas, symphonies, or his requiem, in emotional intensity. But Boccherini's chamber music and cello concerti can hold their own next to Mozart's galant best in similar genres, in terms of musical detail and stylishness. Join the Boccherini Club! No penalty for late comers like me!