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Bottesini quintets SOMMCD0645
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Giovanni BOTTESINI (1821-1889)
String Quintet No.2 in E minor (c.1860) [26:20]
String Quintet No.1, 'Gran Quintetto', in C minor (c.1858) [25:32]
String Quintet No.3 in A major (c.1888) [25:23]
I Musicanti
Leon Bosch (double bass)
First recordings (2 & 3)
rec. June 2021, St. Nicolas' Church, Thames Ditton, UK
SOMM SOMMCD0645 [77:22]

The name of Bottesini seems not to be mentioned too much these days. When the name is met, it is generally followed by the phrase “the Paganini of the double bass”. Certainly, Bottesini seems by all accounts to have been a remarkable master of that instrument. It is perhaps worth noting that the same nickname had also been bestowed, not long before, on another player of the double bass, also from northern Italy, Giovanni Andrea Dragonetti (1763-1846). But we should recognise that there was far more to Bottesini's musical career than 'just' being an instrumental virtuoso, as an obituary (signed 'C.P.S') in The Musical Times, August 1, 1889, p.476 recognised: “The death of Giovanni Bottesini, unrivalled as a double-bass virtuoso, and well-known also as a composer and conductor, has an end to an artistic career that redounded to the credit and glory of the country that gave him birth”.

Though his major fame was as double bass virtuoso, Bottesini was also famous, across Europe and beyond, as a conductor (primarily of opera) and had an established reputation as a composer. As a conductor he worked in many international opera houses as, for example, in Paris, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Naples, Turin, Buenos and Mexico City. Verdi (a lifelong friend of Bottesini) chose him to conduct the Cairo premiere of Aida in 1871.

Bottesini was a relatively prolific composer (particularly if one takes into account the work he did as a soloist and a conductor). His output included 13 operas, a Requiem (for his brother) and a number of other sacred works; he wrote an oratorio, The Garden of Olivet, performed at the Norwich Festival in 1887. His instrumental works included - unsurprisingly – a number of solo and duet works
for the double bass as well as at least two concertante works. His other chamber music included a number of string quartets and several other works which sometimes (but not always) included a part for the double bass. 'Prolific' can be a relatively polite way of dismissing an artist as productive but limited in terms of ability or interest, but I wouldn't want my description of Bottesini the composer to be understood in that way. I have heard none of Bottesini's operas but I have heard, at one time or another, quite a few of his non-theatrical compositions. Now and then, perhaps, he sounds as if he is merely going through the motions (still, that is something one could say of composers more highly regarded than him) but for the most part he sounds, at the very least, highly accomplished, and often rather more than that.

Certainly, the three string quintets recorded here (there is also a fourth in F major) by I Musicanti and Leon Bosch are never less than very accomplished and there is writing that is very distinctive and richly accomplished. It is the music of a composer who, while of an essentially Romantic sensibility, is also far from having lost touch with his Classical predecessors.

Bottesini doesn't use any one form of the string quintet consistently. His Quintet No.1 in C minor adds the double bass to the normal string quartet. The musicians we hear on this recording are the violinists Tamás Andras and Benedict Holland, the violist Robert Smissen and cellist Richard Harwood, plus the double bass of Leon Bosch. In the Quintet No.2 in E, Bottesini adds a second cello to the quartet – perhaps remembering the example of Boccherini? – and the work is played here by Andras and Holland (violins), Smissen (viola) and the cellos of Richard Harwood and Ursula Smith. No.3 in A major, adds a second viola to the line-up of the string quartet – perhaps Bottesini had in mind works by Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, this last being a composer often brought to mind by Bottesini's chamber music. The quintet here is made up of the violins of Tamás Andras and Benedict Holland, the violas of Smissen and Bradley, plus the cello of Richard Harwood.

This varied instrumentation effectively ensures, along with Bottesini's own skill, that, if listening to these quintets in relatively quick succession, one hears a great many variations in colour and texture.

Of the three quintets presented on this disc I could only claim any degree of prior familiarity with No.1. During my time as a postgraduate (studying English literature rather than music) a friend of mine put together an ad hoc ensemble to play this work and was kind enough to let me attend as many of the rehearsals as I could, as well as its public performance. Perhaps this familiarity is one reason why I find No.1 more interesting than its two successors, although another reason is, I think, that the presence of the double bass makes for some very distinctive colours and textures that are especially intriguing. It should be stressed, however, that though the double bass is important in terms both of structure and texture, it doesn't in any sense dominate the work. Its use here is not a case of a virtuoso of the instrument giving 'his' instrument the starring role.

Quintet No.1 opens with much the longest movement in the work, marked Allegro Moderato, which begins with somewhat restless and unsettled music, the deep resonance of the double bass an important part of the effect. This slightly edgy quality is 'dismissed' by the second subject which is altogether more fluent and smooth. From this point onwards the movement shifts through several keys (as pointed out by Toby Deller in his excellent booklet essay), moving though B flat minor, G flat major, A flat major and D flat major before a passage, in which the double bass is prominent, brings us to a recapitulation in C major.

The second movement (marked Scherzo. Allegro ma non troppo) is less 'serious' than its predecessor, being more playful. There are affinities here with Mendelssohn's 'fairy' music. Fittingly, the Trio has a delightful grace and elegance. The whole movement is played with insight and sympathy. What I particularly like about this and the other performances on the disc is that, in their nuanced playing, all concerned resist any temptation to overdo Botteini's clear 'romantic' contrasts

The first part of the third movement Adagio is largely in D flat major. In it the first violin plays an attractive melody, supported by the second violin and the viola. Not for the only time, the lyrical playing of Tamás Andras is poetic and engaging. There is an air of serenity to the first section of this movement, until this mood is interrupted by an insistent (almost dogged) passage in B minor. It is the double bass which leads us back to D major and a return to the music of the movement's opening.

The closing movement (Allegro con brio) - has a march-like rhythm – though it is one which evokes, say, a celebratory public parade, rather than anything more directly war-like. Indeed, the movement travels, via some trumpet-like patterns and a hymn-like melody, to a conclusion in C major.

The quintet as a whole begins in C minor and ends in C major – a clearly affirmative arc. One might view the long opening movement, despite its length, as a microcosm of the whole work.

This music displays many subtle effects, while also having something worthwhile to say. These, it seems to me, are among the qualities of good music. While I don't make any claim that Bottesini is a 'great' composer, I do feel strongly that he is a 'good' composer. For me, at least, the 'consumption' of any of the arts is a matter of a balanced diet, finding place for, on one hand Cervantes, Dickens and Tolstoy and, on the other hand, for historical novels by writers such as Madeline Miller and Natalie Haynes or the Blandings stories of P.G. Wodehouse. When it comes to music, a composer such as Bottesini deserves a place (in a 'balanced diet') alongside figures such as Bach, Beethoven and Mozart.

Though I have concentrated on just one of the three string quintets on this disc, I do not intend to imply that the other two are of no interest. While I cannot find in them quite the same unity across their whole length that I hear in the ‘Gran Quintetto’, they offer their own rewards, their own music of sophisticated intelligence, as in the idiosyncratic Menuetto of the E minor quintet or the emphatic joyfulness in the last movement of the A major quintet

Throughout, the recorded sound is delightfully realistic and one can hear all the details of the instrumental conversation – an observation I intend as praise both of the performers and the Recording Engineer, Oscar Torres.

For an Italophile like me, this album boasts a further attraction – the cover carries a beautiful photograph of the lovely small town of Varenna on the eastern side of the northern part of Lake Como. The photograph was, we are told, taken from the Villa Monastero, a little way south of Varenna on the same shore of the lake. A man of North Italy such as Bottesini (he was born in Crema some 25 miles from
Milan) was doubtless familiar with Lake Como, so the presence of such a photograph is justified on grounds of relevance as well as beauty. (The Villa Monastero has a music room. Could it be that Bottesini once gave one of his famous solo recitals there?).

So, while I make no claim for greatness, I feel strongly that there is enough on this disc to reward any attentive listener who approaches the music without any prejudices. Those who enjoy the work of, say, Mendelssohn or Spohr will surely find real pleasure here.

Glyn Pursglove

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