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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Octet in F major, D803 (1824) [63í30]
Mullova Ensemble: Viktoria Mullova, Adrian Chamorro (violins); Erich Krüger (viola), Manuel Fischer-Dieskau (cello); Klaus Stoll (double bass), Pascal Moraguès (clarinet); Marco Postinghel (bassoon), Guido Corti (horn)
Recorded at Polling im Innkreis, Austria (no date)
ONYX 4006 [63í30]

Thereís little doubt who is the selling point on this new Onyx disc of the Schubert Octet.

Of course, the idea of a star performer getting a group of hand-picked friends together for chamber recordings is not new Ė Gidon Kremer, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma - itís been happening for years. What one hopes will lift the ensuing performance above the norm is, I guess, the feeling that we have playing of exceptional insight, individuality and quality. There are hints of that here, but the positives are outweighed, for me, by too many negatives.

On the up side, Mullova herself has a silky smooth tone and is matched by an excellent clarinettist and horn player. I fact, itís difficult to fault individual playing and they obviously enjoy working together, so you have immaculate intonation and some really energetic attacking of phrases. This fieriness proves also to be a distinct disadvantage. Where on earth is the rustic charm and warmth in a piece that was intended as a counterpart to Beethovenís equally charming Septet? One gets the feeling right from bar one that Mullovaís cool, detached manner is overriding everything and obviously influencing her partners. The phrasing is rather clipped and pinched, as if the longer line were to be sacrificed for rhythmic energy. This is fine as far as it goes, but take the glorious adagio, where Pascal Moraguèsí eloquent solo emerges in the end as rather perfunctory, the lyricism offset by matter-of-fact accompaniment. Equally, the long variation movement is faultlessly played but fatally lacking in any sort of geniality or grace; at least to these ears.

Perhaps Iím too influenced by my benchmark, the wonderful Vienna Octet on super-budget Decca Eclipse. This is playing literally to the manner born and their 1990 recording, which includes an interesting filler in the youthful Minuet and Finale D.72, has long been a firm recommendation. Itís the only one Iíve ever known and Iíve been spoilt by the ensembleís winning blend of joyous vitality and engaging charm, elements in short supply on the new disc. The recording is also superior, the glowing acoustic of Viennaís Konzerthaus beautifully captured by Christopher Raeburn and far preferable to the closer, drier Onyx recording.

In the end, we can only guide readers and give our personal opinion, but I would echo Gramophone magazine when they concluded that the 1990 Vienna Octet disc is Ďat this price, in a class of its own ... and an unmissable bargainí.

Tony Haywood

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