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The Consort

David J. Golby

Volume 73, Summer 2017

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier
Six Quartet Sonatas op. 34, vol. 1 (nos. 1-3)
Edition HH, HH428.FSP, Launton, 2016
(pbk, £26.95)
ISMN 979 0 708146 30 8

In 2015 I reviewed three of Boismortier’s Six Trio Sonatas op. 18, issued by Edition HH. I wrote at the time that this repertoire offers potentially rich pickings to a far-sighted publisher, and this further venture into his music by Edition HH is most welcome. Despite falling into obscurity, Boismortier (1689-1755) was prolific and extremely successful during his lifetime, achieving a great deal of commercial success as a provider of quality compositions for the enormous amateur market and also as a leader of taste, disseminating Italian-style music in France through his own works. The quality as well as the quantity of his music should hopefully elicit a great deal of further interest among amateurs and professionals alike.

The Frenchman’s chamber music output was substantial and collections of sonatas constitute nearly half (over 250) of his published works. This op. 34 set contains sonatas for three instruments and basso continuo, which is, as Elphinstone states, an unusual combination for the late Baroque period, the works of Telemann being a notable exception. These six Sonates à Quatre, published in 1731, appeared before the full impact of Telemann’s Quadri had been felt in France; the Sonates are further evidence of Boismortier’s pioneering zeal as a composer who set about exploiting commercial opportunities in innovative ways.

Despite some unmistakeable Italian fingerprints, these works signal a conscious effort to present something new. The structures are consistent, with each sonata in four through-composed movements, but there is a complete avoidance of binary dance forms. Also, rather than being scored for a range of contrasting instruments, typical of the contemporary German quadro approach, here, three identical, interchangeable concertante instruments with basso continuo are required.

This edition presents these pieces as string sonatas, although other options, such as performance by three flutes, are entirely acceptable. This inherent flexibility makes the set a very appealing proposition, as does the equality of treatment of all four parts. Imitation and counterpoint abound and these short pieces display a high level of skill and inventiveness, both melodically and harmonically. Elphinstone highlights the qualities of Sonatas 2 and 5 in particular, and it is certainly the case that the Second Sonata epitomises the playfulness and creativity of the set as a whole. The attractive and vibrant melodic and rhythmic characteristics that pervade the fast movements are spun out by the clever and virtually omnipresent use of imitation and antiphonal effects.

The slow movements are also highly imitative, but display greater harmonic interest and sophistication. I have developed a fondness for the Adagio of Sonata no. 3, which has mirroring descending and ascending chromatic ideas handled with flair, within the imitative texture and steady flow of sequences and suspensions. I found this movement to be a very useful tool for highlighting and illustrating these features and techniques to a group of university students.

In keeping with the earlier edition of Boismortier’s Trio Sonatas, the detailed Introduction by the editor (in English and German, preceded by a facsimile of a portrait of Boismortier by Jean Ranc) is a real treat. Michael Talbot is employed once again to assist with the continuo realisation, for which the Introduction offers important clarification about conventions affecting figuring. The approach to editorial interventions is typically unambiguous and logical. Brief textual notes on the predominantly error-free source in the Bibliothèque National de France are included at the end of the score.

As Quartet Sonatas, these pieces offer far more than purely novelty value to us today (even if an emphasis on this was an important part of Boismortier’s original marketing tactics). The cover illustration of ‘Clara the Rhinoceros’ by Oudry, a contemporary of Boismortier, is a delightful, quirky little detail that epitomises the care and attention that characterises every Edition HH issue that I have encountered. All in all, the collection offers a great deal while making relatively modest technical demands. It is ideal for young ensembles honing their skills (and working on intonation) as well as offering very attractive programming options to a much wider audience. I eagerly anticipate the second volume in the series, incorporating the remaining three sonatas in the set.

We are grateful to theThe Consort for permission to reproduce this review.

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