Summer 2009, Vol. 65
6 variations on Voi che sapete from
Le Nozze di Figaro (W A Mozart) for harp
ed CHRISTOPHER HOGWOOD
Edition HH, HH178.SOL, Bicester, 2007 (pbk £10.95)
ISMN 979 0 708059 431
Robert Nicholas Charles Bochsa (1789-1856) was not a very nice man! The fulsome introduction to this edition outlines some of his activities, touching lightly on forgery and embezzlement, detailing his career as performer, composer and teacher, his elopement with a certain Mrs Bishop, and their continued escapades on two further continents.
Whatever his personal shortcomings, Bochsa was a brilliant harpist, and his talent as a performer was equalled by his gift for composition. At a time when the harp was probably at the greatest level of popularity it would ever know, much of the repertoire that was published to feed the fashion for the instrument is slight and superficial, being intended for the salon and for amateur performance. Bochsa's works can in no way be placed in this category. Although written for the same audience, his compositions and arrangements demonstrate both musical and artistic depth, and in even the most superficial genre, variations on a popular theme, his genius is evident.
Sadly, due to current fashions in harp playing, little of Bochsa's work is in print, so it is a great delight to see this work in a modern edition. On the practical side, the theme and six subsequent variations are beautifully set out. Printed on cream stock, the delightfully unfussy layout is clear to the eye. Page turns in each variation have been avoided, which is a good idea in theory, but this does mean that in some places the printing can get a little dense, and in parts of the final variation where the music is at its most chromatic, there is little space to mark in pedal moves, but these are small gripes, and they pale into insignificance when compared to some editions with which the hapless harpist is faced.
Yes, the piece is somewhat formulaic (which is only to be expected, given its nature), but the artistic handling of the formula lifts it well above the usual sets of variations by Bochsa's contemporaries, and the beautifully set out bavura ornamentation offers an important glimpse of the way in which the aria was performed during this the period.
I applaud Hogwood's adherence to the original score markings, such as in variation 3, where a passage is marked Sons harmoniques des deux mains, with its duration indicated by a dashed line, as in the original edition, and with the modern symbol for harmonics thoughtfully added as an indicator to the modern player. However, this passage in harmonics presents the biggest technical problem in the work, for it is also marked with staccato dots. A harmonic played staccato will probably sound like a missed harmonic, and so perhaps these are intended as non-legato marks rather than as true staccato markings (both dots and vertical wedges are offered in contemporary Methods to indicate different degrees of staccato or of emphasis, with only 'spirit and taste' offered as a guide to the student!). It is, however, nice to be left with the choice.
So, a very enjoyable piece, a valuable addition to the repertoire, well presented… what more can we ask? Well, Hogwood gives us even more, for appended to this excellent performing edition is a full critical apparatus, comparing the composer's autograph with a published version of c1821. As if that were not enough, Hogwood has also included two smaller works from Bochsa's Nouvelle Méthode de Harpe (dated c1820, but actually published in 1814) as a guide to performance style. These little gems, Non piu andrai, and Voi che sapete without variations, would be worth buying on their own, being lovely musical miniatures and also important musicological documents, as they are marked with Bochsa's original fingering, including thumb slides and repeated strikes that show how he wanted the piece played, giving us insight into an aspect of performance style of the period.
By producing this edition, harp repertoire has recovered a glorious piece. Well worthy of a place in a concert programme, or as study material for those interested in rediscovering the developing technique that Bochsa was so instrumental in creating, the music is a delight, and this well thought out edition makes it both accessible and legible. I am very grateful for it.