David J Golby
Volume 76, Summer 2020
Joseph Bodin De Boismortier Four Trio Sonatas op. 78, for two flutes and basso continuo
ed. Michael Elphinstone
Edition HH, HH464.FSC, Launton, 2019 (pbk, £28)
ISMN 979 0 708146 73 5
Anton Eberl Sonata (trio) in A minor op. 10 no. 1, for violin, violoncello and fortepiano
ed. Martin Harlow
Edition HH, HH425.FSP, Launton, 2018 (pbk, £28)
ISMN 979 0 708146 26 1
Christian Michael Wolff Sinfonia in B flat major, for strings and baso continuo
ed. Michael Talbot
Edition HH, HH465.FSC, Launton, 2019 (pbk, £14.50)
ISMN 979 0 708146 75 9
Over the last few years I have had the great pleasure of reviewing a number of Edition HH publications of works by Boismortier (quartet sonatas) and Eberl (violin sonatas). The issuing of works by these figures, important in their own right and prominent in their own lifetimes but subsequently confined to obscurity, eclipsed by more famous composers, is entirely in line with the longstanding approach and priorities of Edition HH.
The fine music of Boismortier continues to be promoted by this publisher and Michael Elphinstone, and the undoubted qualities of Eberl’s works are explored further by Martin Harlow. I will focus briefly on these two increasingly familiar figures first, hopefully avoiding repetition of what I have written in previous reviews, before turning to the relative newcomer Christian Michael Wolff (1707–89) and some general observations.
The chamber music of Boismortier (1689–1755) is substantial, with nearly half of his published works (over 250 in total) being sonatas. The prolific, commercially astute and successful Frenchman responded to the increasing demands of the expanding amateur market, while also taking the lead in disseminating music in the Italian style in France through his own works: this is exemplified by his choice of the typically Italianate medium of the trio sonata. As an entrepreneur looking for the next commercial opportunity, composition was just one aspect of Boismortier’s activities: later in his career he also spent time writing treatises and performing.
The op. 78 set presented here form his last surviving group of ‘Italian’ trio sonatas; they are his third set for two transverse flutes and basso continuo. The set was published in late 1739 or early 1740 and consists of four sonatas (rather than the customary six), each in four movements. Other than the genre itself, there are other Italian fingerprints, including the use of terminology and time signatures. Boismortier chooses technically comfortable keys (D, E minor and G), but his experimental approach is evident through his decision to rely less on titled dance movements than was customary. Boismortier described op. 78 as Sonates pour deux flûtes-traversières ou autres instruments, avec la basse; he thus encouraged performers on other instruments, both then and now, to play them.
This music is both accomplished (there are two three-part fugues) and accessible. Skill and invention abound, as in the fugal Presto of the Sonata in G major, no. 3, with its appealing subject and rhythmic dynamism, which rounds off the sonata in an exciting manner. There is an excellent Introduction by the editor (in English with a German translation), preceded by a portrait of Boismortier by Jean Ranc, with Michael Talbot’s expert continuo realisation, and a fascinating ‘yawning’ self-portrait by Joseph Ducreux (c. 1783) on the cover.
The prodigious Austrian pianist and composer Anton Eberl (1765–1807) was possibly a pupil of Mozart and was considered by many of his contemporaries to be the equal of (or even superior to) Beethoven. The violin sonatas of Eberl that I have reviewed previously show him to be a significant transitional figure who, like Beethoven, expanded musical style beyond the limits of classical rationality and refinement.
Eberl worked in Vienna and later as Kapellmeister in St Petersburg, where the two op. 10 Grandes Sonates for keyboard and violin with ad libitum bass were published in the late 1790s and sold on subscription (a surviving subscriber list accounts for 231 copies of op. 10, including many patrons from the highest echelons of society). The sonata presented here is chronologically the third of the seven that form his op. 10; like those of Beethoven, it moves beyond the ‘accompanied keyboard sonata’ towards a more creative interplay between the instruments.
The cello part is not too taxing for amateurs; there is very little given to the cello that cannot be found in the left hand of the piano and the piece would certainly work without it, but there are small touches (including the use of pizzicato, legato figures and interjections, and sustained pedals) that make it a worthwhile addition. Though not a genuine piano trio, the additional part ‘brings a more satisfying sonority’ (‘Editorial Method & Notes on Performance’, p. 45) through its texture and timbre.
In his Introduction, Harlow draws on contemporary writers and periodicals to provide an illuminating context, especially regarding views of the time on the similarities and differences between Eberl and Beethoven. Julius Fischer at the turn of the nineteenth century refers to both composers’ ‘power’, ‘strength’, ‘force’, ‘genius’ and ‘pecularities’, and Eberl’s op. 10 sonatas received similar criticism to those of Beethoven’s op. 12: critics struggled with their length, harmonic invention, complexity, and disregard of convention.
Eberl’s idiosyncratic approach is evident in various harmonic and structural twists and his ability to surprise the listener, combined with strong and appealing thematic ideas. Eberl’s Sonata in A minor lies within the capabilities of proficient amateurs but can also offer a great deal of enjoyment to professional performers. The Mozartean Rondo third movement abounds in humour and classical deftness of touch, which continues to the calando - perdendosi ending (a device of which Eberl was fond, judging by the pieces I have encountered so far).
Christian Michael Wolff was born 28 years after Boismortier and died 28 years before Eberl; his lifespan covers most of the eighteenth century. Wolff is a relative newcomer to Edition HH, with just three other works (wind concertos) published so far (there are over twenty by Boismortier and Eberl in the Edition HH catalogue). Wolff’s Sinfonia in B flat major for strings and continuo completes the collection of his instrumental music preserved in Stockholm; it dates from the early 1740s. Composed between the sonatas of Boismortier and Eberl, it straddles significant developments in musical style. It is interesting to consider these three works together, as they illustrate the output of neglected masters during an extended period of great musical activity and development.
Wolff was born and died in the Pomeranian port city of Stettin (Szczecin in modern Poland). After a significant three-year period in Berlin, he became associated with the Berlin School of composers, alongside figures such as Quantz and C.P. E. Bach. His music also features galant elements and the Italianate traits of composers such as Vivaldi and the Neapolitans, including Vinci.
The free-standing, non-operatic, Sinfonia in B flat is the only surviving example of its kind by Wolff. Described by the editor Michael Talbot as ‘a fully fledged chamber symphony’, which ‘is very progressive in style and advanced in form’ (Introduction, p. vi), it offers us insight into how the Italianate fast-slow-fast sinfonia paved the way for the epoch-defining developments and maturity of style epitomised by C. P. E. Bach and Haydn. Wolff, like the other two composers featured here, contributes his own stylistic characteristics to the musical language of the time.
Talbot refers to the ‘drama’ of this music (Introduction, p. vi), and I would agree that there is an appealing dynamism about the writing: he often uses rhythmic unison and syncopation to dramatic effect. Wolff is inventive in his use of rhythm, texture, and his idiomatic treatment of the instruments. In this comparatively brief work, textural clarity and simplicity are combined with a mastery of thematic and structural concepts that propel the music forward, while also giving coherence to the whole. This can be seen in the development section of the opening Allegro, where, in the course of some fifty bars, Wolff includes textural and dynamic sleight of hand, combined with an easy playfulness.
With the needs of the scholar-performer in mind, a helpful continuo realisation is provided by the editor (for ‘those inexperienced in keyboard realization’, Editorial Method, p. 18). There is another excellent Introduction and, for those wishing to delve deeper into Wolff’s background and style, Talbot’s substantial article, Precious Offerings from Pomerania, is available via the Edition HH website (similar to the useful twelve-page downloadable guide to ‘Boismortier and the Trio Sonata’ by Elphinstone).
The Edition HH website enables those interested in more obscure repertoire to discover how such works fit into the bigger picture. Talbot is a convincing advocate for a re-evaluation of Wolff’s works and their significance both in their own time and for modern audiences. These three works, in keeping with Edition HH’s catalogue in general, encourage us to think beyond the received wisdom of what deserves to be known and performed, challenging our tendency to restrict our choices of repertoire.
The three pieces span the late seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries; each offers its own interesting hybrid form and contributes to the array of transitional cross-currents during this period. Boismortier, Wolff and Eberl each sought to move musical style forward in their own way, respectful of tradition but also attempting to establish something new. Boismortier and Wolff display Italianate fingerprints within their own respective French and German idioms, while Eberl displays classical refinement with Romantic and progressive tendencies. The blending of old and new, and a desire to enrich the prevailing style are qualities that we admire in the great masters. If not contenders for that category, these three ‘progressive conservatives’ merit wider appreciation among both amateurs and professionals, and these editions, together with the others in their respective series are a good way to enable these composers to be more widely known. All of the exemplary qualities that we have come to associate with Edition HH are present – clarity and usability, supported by academic rigour. The expanding Edition HH catalogue is a treasure trove that continues to enrich our repertoire: long may these endeavours continue.
We are grateful to theThe Consort for permission to reproduce this review.
Boismortier: Full score and parts
Eberl: Full score and parts
Wolff: Full score
Wolff: Instrumental parts
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