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The Consort

Helen Crown

Summer 2021

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Six Concertos, op. 21, vol. 1 (nos. 1-3)
for flute, violin, ripieno and continuo
ed. Michael Elphinstone
Edition HH, HH 474.FSP, Launton, 2019 (pbk, £36)
ISMN 979 0 708146 85 8

Joseph Bodin de Boismortier, Six Concertos, op. 38 for 2 flutes
ed. Michael Elphinstone
Edition HH, HH 496.FSP, Launton, 2020 (pbk, £28)
ISMN 979 0 708185 06 2

These two volumes are the latest in a series of works by Boismortier (1689-1755) to be published by Edition HH under the editorship of Michael Elphinstone. Highly original in conception, these small-scale chamber concertos are inspired by Italian models and designed to be accessible to a modest number of participants. Op. 21 was originally published in Paris in 1728 and it is the copy held at the Bibliothèque national de France that is the source for this edition. The solo parts are for transverse flute and violin, but the original title page makes it clear that the scoring is flexible and any combination of flutes, oboes or violins would be satisfactory. Both solo parts are written with a range of d' to d'''; an absence of idiosyncratic features in the violin part, such as pizzicato or double stopping, enables woodwind instruments to be considered as alternatives. The different colours provided by two different instruments would, perhaps, have the best effect.

Boismortier specified that the first solo part in the third concerto was for musette or recorder rather than a flute. In this edition it is designated zampogna, which Elphinstone explains is a rustic folk bagpipe of southern and central Italy, traditionally associated with shepherds. Charming though this may be, it is hardly the most practical choice for modern performance. A recorder is the most obvious substitute, but a piccolo would also be an authentic option for, in his Méthode pour apprendre aisémenta jouer de la flute traversière (Paris, c. 1735), Corrette states, ‘On fait présentement a Paris des petites flutes traversière a l’octave qui font un effet charmant dans les tambourins et dans les concertos faits exprès pour la flute. Voyez ceux de messieurs Boismortier, Corrette, Nodeau, Braun et Quantz’. Currently, there are piccolos in Paris that have a charming effect in tambourins and concertos written specifically for the flute, such as those of Boismortier, Corrette.

Instead of the usual body of strings to accompany the solo instruments, there is just a part for the continuo and another optional part for a ripieno violin. The latter simply doubles the flute in the tutti passages. In acknowledgement of the small forces involved, the original title page suggests that the pieces could be played as trios by omitting the ripieno part. In fact, the ripieno violin is already silent in the slow movements (with the exception of a few harmony notes in the third concerto, which could be provided by the keyboard player). This edition contains separate parts for flute, violin, ripieno violin, a bass part that also includes figures, and a score with a realised continuo part by Michael Talbot.

Boismortier’s concertos employ ritornello form in the outer movements, with alternating solo and tutti passages. There are solos for both instruments, sometimes together, sometimes separately, with and without the continuo, thereby providing a variety of texture and interest. A small error is found in the solo violin part, third movement, bar 44 of the second concerto. There is a crotchet on the first beat but thereafter the stave remains empty, although it is easy to deduce that crotchet rests are intended for beats two and three. The same error is found in the score. These tuneful pieces will have immediate appeal to performers and listeners alike. Technical challenges reflect the fact that they were written for eager amateurs of certain accomplishment and as trios they should be particularly useful in educational settings.

In the case of the op. 38 concertos (originally published in 1732), Boismortier took the notion of minimal forces to the absolute extreme: the two soloists are entirely alone. This is a unique example of concertos written for two unaccompanied melody instruments. At face value they are simply flute duets written in the Italian tradition, with the quick movements in ritornello form characterised by alternating solo and tutti sections. The impression of a tutti is created by the two flutes playing either in unison, or else in thirds or sixths, while solos are generally given to the first flute with the second flute largely providing simple harmonic support. These roles are never reversed. Slow movements similarly favour the first flute; nevertheless, they are charming and effective pieces. The range of the first flute part is d' to e''', while that of the second flute is d' to b''.

Boismortier chose keys that are particularly suited to the flute. Concertos 4 and 6 are in G and D minor respectively and Elphinstone maintains the eighteenth-century custom of having one flat fewer in these key signatures than is now normal. This is a nice touch that will be appreciated by many, but in practice I wonder whether some might find it a little annoying in a modern performing edition. There are two separate solo parts as well as a score. The parts are clear and, in general, thoughtfully arranged regarding page turns, but it was surprising to find that the wrong time signature has been given for the slow movement, affettuoso, of concerto 4. Whether one thinks of them as flute duets or concertos, these are tuneful, simple and elegant pieces that are fun to play and, again, should be very useful teaching material. The slow movements could be particularly valuable as exercises in style, ornamentation, and accurate intonation.

Even though Boismortier writes in Italian style and format, he uses the French symbol for trills and the slow movements contain numerous occurrences of the quintessentially French ornament, the coulé (or ‘slide’). This instructs the performer to begin two or three notes below the marked note and to move stepwise up to the last note. A practical explanation of the coulé would have been very helpful, and also advice concerning the practice of starting trills with the upper note on the beat – it is regrettable that the subject of performance practice is absent from the introductory notes. Notwithstanding that quibble, the introductions are very informative and full of insights into Boismortier’s approach to concerto writing. Both volumes have been edited with much care and retain some original features that a heavier-handed editor might have been tempted to modernise. This is unusual, delightful music with much appeal.

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

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