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The Consort

Wendy Hancock

Summer 2008, Vol 64

Alessandro Rolla
Quartet no. 1 in C major, Quartet no.2 in E flat major

Edition HH225.FSP, Bicester, 2007
(pbk £13.95)
ISMN M 708059 36 3

Giovanni Battista Viotti
Quartet in E flat op.22 no.3

Edition HH069.FSP, Bicester, 2007
(pbk £15)
ISMN M 708041 21 4

available from Schott & Co.

The genre of the flute quartet, in which the flute is substituted for the first violin in the string quartet layout, enjoyed widespread popularity throughout the classical period. However, it never achieved the type of recognition afforded to more clearly established genres such as the piano trio or the string quintet, perhaps because it appeared to be less substantial, owing to the flute’s more limited range and power. In essence, then, the flute quartet was a more intimate genre: it had different aims, and it never became standardised in the number, format and sequence of its movements. Nevertheless flute quartets employed most of the forms of the day, including first movements in sonata form, sets of variations, the minuet and trio, and the rondo. Numerous examples were written by such composers as Hoffmeister, Pleyel, Cimarosa, J C Bach, Devienne and even by Mozart himself, who contributed four fine examples to the genre (K285, 285a, 285b, and K298), the first three commissioned in 1777 by Ferdinand Dejean in Mannheim. Flute quartets were normally written in three movements, with the exception of J C Bach, Devienne - and indeed Rolla’s quartet no. 1 - which contain only two.

The flute compositions of both Rolla (1757-1841) and Viotti (1755-1824) were new to me, and the Viotti quartet in particular is a real find. These editions are beautifully produced and meticulously edited, on good quality paper, with a clear, bold typeface. The editorial introduction by Michael Elphinstone to the Rolla quartets is a mine of information, and in both cases the editing is exemplary, with a clear distinction drawn between editorial and original phrasing, articulation and other markings. In both cases, editorial additions are shown in square brackets, and ties/slurs by broken ligatures.

Both editions too, while being thoroughly scholarly, are also practical. For example, they take account of pageturns in the parts, to the extent that an entire page is left blank in Viotti. My only quibble is the omission of sextuplet indications in the flute part of the first movement of Rolla’s quartet no. 1, at bars 58-9, which confused me at first sight.

While not impossible to play, this music stretches the one-keyed flute to its limits. Despite the fact that this instrument survived until the mid- 19th century, the generally high tessitura of these works as well as the flat keys used and the agility required, the wide dynamic range and variety of articulation demanded, all suggest a later, and therefore probably multi-keyed instrument. The lower spectrum of sounds which were so characteristic of the earlier flute, and which were preferred by Quantz, are largely avoided.

The development of the F natural, G sharp and B flat keys which occurred in the 1760s, probably in England, created the four-keyed flute, these keys being invented to brighten the tonal characteristics and improve the intonation of the instrument. They also had the added effect of improving the high register, and of opening up a range of flat keys which had been less accessible on the earlier instrument.

Rolla was born in Pavia, south of Milan, and most of his musical activities centred on the city and its environs: as a result, his music tends to be charming rather than profound. Like Boccherini, Viotti and Paganini, much of Rolla’s output was chamber music for diverse instrumental groupings - indeed he himself played the violin and viola. The works were composed for specific occasions or particular musicians, and a large proportion of them feature the flute. These include twelve duos for flute and violin; three terzetti for two flutes and viola; two sonatas for piano with flute and cello accompaniment; two sonatas for flute, two mandolins and viola, and eight quartets for flute and string trio.

Two of the flute quartets were published in the early 19th century as his op.2, in two separate editions. The other six quartets exist in two separate manuscripts (only the instrumental parts survive), and remained unpublished. The Bologna manuscript bears the date 1794, and the Ostiglia (Mantua) manuscript probably dates from the early 1780s. The present edition consists of the first two of these. They are both quintessentially classical in musical language, form and layout, idiomatically written and ideal as music for entertainment.

Unlike Rolla, Viotti had a wide-ranging international career, from his origins in Italy as part of the classical Italian violin school, to Paris where he became director of the newly-formed Loge Olympique, for whom Haydn was to compose his Paris symphonies. He then fled the Revolution and established himself in London in 1792, successfully collaborating with Salomon. The present work is one of three published in Leipzig, we presume, in 1808. It is a sonata in three movements, of which the first is in sonata form, the second is an Andante, and the third a Pastorelle in rondo form. In the first movement, the exposition establishes the key of E flat major, but in the development section, a wide range of keys are explored, from C minor (the relative) to A flat major, G minor, F minor and even B flat minor. This music is wide-ranging, exciting, and varied in musical ideas, dynamics and articulation; moreover it displays a high quality of melodic invention, with complex textures and moments of real harmonic intensity. It also pushes the flute to the limits of its range and natural ability at this time.

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