Online Concert: Steven Isserlis and friends @ Wigmore Hall – Boccherini

Steven Isserlis (cello), Jonian Ilias Kadesha (violin), Irène Duval (violin), Eivind Ringstad (viola), Tim Posner (cello), Lucy Shaw (double bass), Maggie Cole (harpsichord)

String Quintet in D minor Op.13/4 (1772)
Cello Sonata no.2 in C minor (pub. 1772)
Cello Concerto no.7 in G major (pub. 1770)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 20 March 1pm

by Ben Hogwood

Steven Isserlis has been a passionate advocate of the music of Luigi Boccherini for a number of years. One of his very first recordings, made for Virgin Classics, brought together a selection of the prolific composer’s works for cello, two of which were heard in this Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert.

Boccherini was born in Italy in 1743, but made his name and much of his living in Spain, where he lived from 1768 until his death. A prodigious cellist, he joined the string quartet in the court of Don Luis in Madrid and wrote himself into the musical equation, making an unusually weighted quintet with two cellos, a combination that became his calling card with over 100 works. While Mozart would go on to write for a string quintet with two violas in the late 1780s, Boccherini achieved a very different balance. His works may be functional in origin but they show fresh invention, distinctive colours and generous melodic appeal. Unfortunately that appeal has not regularly transferred to the concert hall, at least not in the UK – but on this evidence, where Boccherini’s music brightened a spring lunchtime, they should be available on the NHS!

We heard the String Quintet in D minor Op.13/4 from 1772, from early in the Madrid vocation – but clearly Boccherini was already at home in the two-cello idiom. A rich D minor setting found Tim Posner’s cello initially leading with a sonorous tune, before a genial second section in F major assigned plenty of melodic interest to each of the five players. With a relatively congested texture there was nonetheless a beautiful combination of melodies, though the development clouded over in outlook a little.

The second movement Andante gave first violinist Jonian Ilias Kadesha greater prominence, the other four instruments accompanying at walking pace. Soon the texture thinned to three for an extended cello solo, Isserlis’ wonderful tone rising to a high trill with graceful elegance. Boccherini didn’t leave his second cellist out, either, with Posner also enjoying a rich solo rising to the heights. The finale was a quickly executed fugue, with plenty of counterpoint to enjoy and a distinctive sighing chromatic motif passed between the instruments.

Boccherini wrote frequently and fluently for his principal instrument, including many sonatas with harpsichord. Isserlis and Maggie Cole gave a stylish performance of the Sonata in C minor, a work they have enjoyed since recording it in 1988. The assertive beginning established the home key with a strong theme, leading to more lyrical and ornamented melodic content. Isserlis proved very secure in the upper register, especially with a rising motif towards the end of the first movement. A soulful Largo followed, increasing florid and with a lovely resolution at the end. The economical piece soon cut to a triple time third movement, mixing chirpy motifs with longer, flowing passages with chords from the cello.

It is thought Boccherini wrote 12 concertos, of which the Cello Concerto no.7 in G major is one of the most popular. For this performance the group took an authentic figuration, all seven players on stage with Isserlis in the centre, flanked by first violin (Irène Duval) and viola (Eivind Ringstad). They were his foils in the solo passages, Isserlis revelling in the cello’s free spirit while they enjoyed busy counterpoint of their own. The bright figurations had a spring in their step, like a march Isserlis showing impeccable high register intonation. A grand cadenza sealed the deal in the first movement, while the perky finale had violins bright as a button and both cellos in their high reaches. In between was a radiant Adagio, set in B flat major and featuring some particularly beautiful and longer-phrased, ornamented melodies. This was one of those pieces where music making was a pleasure, pure and simple, with music suited to the rustic outdoors.

Perhaps inevitably – as Isserlis joked to the audience – there was an encore in the form of a popular snippet. Boccherini’s Minuet, itself from a string quintet, is his best-known movement and is often played separately on the radio. This concert proved there is a whole lot more where that came from.

You can listen to recordings of the works in this program on the Spotify playlist below, including Isserlis’ own versions of the sonata and concerto:

For more livestreamed concerts from the Wigmore Hall, click here

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