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ECM cover [Eighteenth-Century Music, Vol. 2, Issue 2, September 2005, pp. 349–351: Review by Elisabeth LeGuin of The Early String Quartet, Vol. 2, Luigi Boccherini, Six String Quartets, Op. 32. Reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press, © Cambridge University Press, 2005.]

The Early String Quartet, volume 2
Ann Arbor: Steglein, 2003
pp. xv + 119, ISBN 0 9719854 1 3

This handsome edition is the second in a new series from Steglein entitled 'The Early String Quartet'. Steglein's website (http://www.steglein.com), which is still in the test stage, informs us that the company is dedicated to 'exploring Western classical music of the 18th and early 19th centuries', and promises to offer some nice features, including a database with 'information about primary and secondary sources for works composed during the 18th and early 19th centuries'. This new series, which began with the publication of six quartets by Giovanni Battista Viotti, takes as its temporal field the period 1760–1830, promising to include string quartets from all parts of Europe and the Americas and stating that the editors will not confine themselves to the 'standard' instrumentation but may include works composed for some of the other configurations that answer to the description 'string quartet'.

The series announces its philosophy in a Series Preface by the General Editor, Cliff Eisen:

The Early String Quartet … adheres to present-day scholarly and editorial standards while at the same time recognizing that music is written primarily to be performed … As such, the scores and parts … reflect not only modern concerns for historical awareness but also the obligation on players to create individual interpretations, whether historically informed or not.[vi]

This is a commendable philosophy, but I cannot resist pointing out the curious way in which Eisen's statement dances round certain loaded issues. He seems to be referring to the minimizing of interventions such as phrase marks, fingerings and egregious 'normalizations', with a view to throwing responsibility for such decisions on to the player. I have to wonder whether and how the player is supposed to recognize the gauntlet being thrown down here. A group of musicians already concerned with interpretation, and possibly also concerned with the way in which historical practices inflect and complicate it, will appreciate this edition very much indeed. But there is no sure way in which it, or any other edition for that matter, can foster that concern, nor enforce the 'obligation' Eisen mentions, in those who do not already have it as a result of prior musical experience (and to some extent temperament). Mechanical, unthinking, playing can come about regardless of how much information does or doesn't end up on the page.

The Preface to this edition, by its editor (and the head of Steglein), Mark Knoll, opens with a biographical sketch of Boccherini which is concise, up to date and well put together—a not insignificant accomplishment given the fraught state of Boccherini biographical scholarship. While I might disagree with the interpretation of a few matters, by and large he has his facts as straight as is possible in so brief a format; I would only mention that the isolated palace at which Boccherini resided from 1771 to 1785 with his first royal patron, Don Luis the Infante of Spain, is in Arenas de San Pedro (not Las Arenas, an inexplicable adornment of the name invented and perpetuated by a series of biographers).

Knoll's information on Boccherini's string quartets is excellent, both scholarly and concise, giving a much needed overview of an important genre in Boccherini's work. He composed ninety, all told, over a forty-three-year period which comprises the entire first flowering of the string quartet in Europe; but his contributions to the genre have tended to be overshadowed by his even more magnificent production of string quintets (125 in all).

Op. 32 is an interesting publication choice. The composition date was 1780, at a time when Boccherini had consolidated certain features of his style, established a steady rhythm of productivity in Arenas and had a relationship with Parisian publishers to go with it. However, the first edition of Op. 32 appeared not in Paris, but in Vienna, with the redoubtable Artaria. Although we now lack the correspondence that would tell us how this transition was effected, it clearly represents yet another canny business decision on Boccherini's part, putting his works cheek by jowl with Artaria's considerable list of works by Haydn and Mozart.

Op. 32 was the second opus of Boccherini's music published by Artaria; the first was his Op. 26, also string quartets, composed in 1778 (and, confusingly, released by Artaria in 1781 as 'Op. 32'). In view of this fact, I would have liked an explanation from Knoll as to why he chose Op. 32 over Op. 26 for this first essay in republishing Boccherini's quartets, even if his reason was simply one of personal preference. (My own opinion is that Op. 32 is on the whole more engaging than its predecessor. There is also a wonderful 1976 period-instrument recording of the entire opus by the old Eszterházy Quartet, not to be confused with the more recent ensemble of that name.)

Knoll's excursus on 'Sources and Editorial Method' is a genuine pleasure to read for the way it integrates the pragmatic and experiential into editorial policy, bearing out the announced intention of this series with both common sense and uncommon sensibility. I would wager that Knoll has spent considerable time playing these pieces from manuscript with his friends or colleagues; it is hard to believe that anything else could lead him to a statement such as the following:

Since Boccherini's style relies to such an extent on small details and the repetition of brief gestures, it seems to me that what might otherwise be considered inconsistencies or sloppy copying may in fact be deliberate attempts to inject variety at the gestural level, with perhaps less concern for absolute consistency at the structural level. I have thus tended not to normalize parallel passages or strive for vertical consistency to the same extent as might be appropriate for another composer, especially with respect to slurring and articulation, selection and placement of dynamics and ornamentation. [x]

Here, in a nicely understated nutshell, is an essential aspect of this composer, better expressed than almost anywhere else. I only hope that the quartet players who buy this edition and play from it will take Knoll at his word and actually try to execute these 'inconsistencies'. With patience and a willingness to hear things anew, they will find themselves entering a unique sonic world, peculiar to Boccherini, where exquisitely fine distinctions of timbre and articulation assume singular importance. I would go so far as to suggest that these distinctions themselves become structural (rather than supplanting musical 'structure' as we are accustomed to think about it)—but the viability of such a claim will ultimately have to rest on the consensus of those who play this music and play it with close attention to how Boccherini notated it and how Knoll has transmitted it. It hardly seems possible to draw many interesting conclusions about Boccherini's music without some reference to the hands-on experience of making it.

Having made this radical claim, I have to admit that it was not possible for me to road-test the parts for this edition before writing this review. They do not seem to present any significant problem, however, as they are spacious on the page, with welcome room between staves for the performers to insert their own notations. Especially commendable care has been taken so that the players need not interrupt themselves to turn a page—or get a colleague to do it, or slice the page in half, or attach an unwieldy and unsightly photocopied appendage—solutions with which users of expensive scholarly editions are far too familiar and which are irritating not only for their tendency to go wrong in performance, but for the implicit way they reinforce the divide between 'being scholarly' and 'being practical'. In the first violin part of Op. 32 no. 5 the text of the second half of the last movement is actually reprinted after a page turn, in order, as the editor says, 'to eliminate a page turn when taking the second half repeat'—a courtesy I cannot recall ever having encountered before.

It is expensive to be generous with paper, but this edition is reasonably priced at $80 US for the score and another $80 for the parts; I hope that it will sell well, as it is an excellent presentation of some fascinating music.

Elisabeth LeGuin

[The reviewer has provided incorrect pricing information for the edition. The correct prices are $60 for the score and $20 for the parts.]

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