Schubert: Oktett (CD review)

Also, Funf Menuette mit sechs Trios. Isabelle Faust et al. Harmonia Mundi HM 902263.

As I've rhetorically asked before, Was there ever a writer of more charming, more thoroughly delightful music than Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828)? Whether it's his symphonies, his songs, his chamber music, his church music, his incidental music, or his stage pieces, it's all so enjoyable it's a wonder he wrote so much of it in so short a time (he died at age thirty-one). And it's an even greater shame that so few people in the composer's lifetime got the chance to hear his work. Still, the years since his death have proved his worth, and the invention of the phonograph further cemented his place in musical history.

On the present album, we have one of his crowning achievements, the Octet in F major D.803, for clarinet, horn, bassoon, two violins, viola, cello, and double bass, which Schubert wrote in 1824 on commission from clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer. The fact that Troyer asked for a piece patterned after Beethoven's Septet, Op. 20 and that Schubert delivered an octet instead (adding a second violin) probably just proves how creative and resolute Schubert could be.

In order to get to the heart of the work, the renowned German violinist Isabelle Faust here interprets the Octet in a presentation featuring period instruments (she herself plays the Stradivarius "Sleeping Beauty," 1704). Her ensemble includes Anne Katharina Schreiber, violin; Danusha Waskiewicz, viola; Kristin von der Goltz, cello; James Munro, double bass; Lorenzo Coppola, clarinets; Teunis van der Zwart, horn; and Javier Zafra, bassoon.

Isabelle Faust
Anyway, Schubert divided the Octet into six movements, the first one based on a theme from his song "Der Wanderer" and the fourth movement variations on a theme from his Singspiel "Die Freunde von Salamanka." Ms. Faust and company provide a loving and enthusiastic interpretation that well captures the joy of Schubert's music. The two slow sections--the Adagio and Andante--are poignant, and I especially liked the sweetness of the variations in the latter movement (so similar in spirit to those of the "Trout" quintet). The ensemble plays the scherzo in appropriately playful fashion, and they ensure the finale is as big and dramatic as it should be without overshadowing its good cheer.

As a historical performance, Ms. Faust's recording comes into direct competition and comparison with one of my longtime favorites, that by Hausmusik (EMI), recorded in 1990. In the opening movements, Hausmusik are marginally more lively and spontaneous, but by the last movements Mr. Faust and her company appear almost equally felicitous. Sonically, the earlier disc is a bit more transparent, but certainly the warmer acoustic of the Harmonia Mundi disc flatters the music in its own way.

To accompany the Octet Ms. Faust and her friends offer two of Schubert's Five Minuets D.89, from 1813, arranged for octet by Ms. Faust's friend, the composer, conductor, and pianist Oscar Strasnoy. These are hardly trifling pieces, and the present group help them attain what one might call at least a measure of apt nobility.

Artistic Director Martin Sauer and engineer Tobias Lehmann of Teldex Studio Berlin recorded the music at Mediapole Saint-Cesaire, Arles, France in July 2017. The sound, as I mentioned above, displays a warm, ambient glow that nicely complements the warmth of Schubert's music. It's a tad close for my liking but captures instrumental color well enough. There is also a moderate sense of depth to the ensemble as well as space around the instruments. If played back at a realistic level, the recording sounds most enjoyable.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa