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Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet in E flat major Op. 20 for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon
Quintet in E flat major Op. 4 arranged for 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon.
Ensemble Acht
Recorded at the Studio of North Hanover Radio, May 2002
THOROFON CTH 2440 [67.43]

You may well ask, on reading the titles above, how a work for quintet can be scored for eight instruments. The background and history to these two works are worth discussion before we address the performance and the music. Ulf-Guido Schafer is interviewed in the programme booklet by Hans-Ulrich Lembick. He explains: "We wanted to record Beethoven’s Septet Op. 20 and needed to find a suitable work to couple it with". It’s interesting that the exigency of having about seventy minutes of music necessary to fill a CD caused this particular creative necessity. He goes on "Beethoven himself arranged his Octet Op. 103 as a Quintet Op. 4". Confused, I think, but let’s continue: "My arrangement (of the Op. 4) is essentially based on the String Quintet which is more extensive and contains more interesting harmony". More explanation needed? Let me try.

Beethoven’s Wind Octet Op. 103 has such a high opus number because it was not published until well after his death. It was composed in 1792. Beethoven, possibly because he needed the money, arranged the piece for wind quintet. This was a more easily accommodated combination and he liked the four-movement serenade-type work rather a lot. Then he arranged it again for String Quintet and ‘improved’ on the harmony a little. It is this version that Schafer has taken and arranged for these eight players. It makes a fascinating companion to the Septet. Incidentally the great man also arranged this Septet for Piano Trio around 1803 and gave it the opus number 38.

Some of you may disagree about my presumption of calling this work ‘serenade-like’ but it is certainly a light work. It is not as powerful or as original a piece as the more famous C major quintet Op. 29. I’m sure anyway that you would not disagree that its ‘brother’ on this recording the Septet Op. 20, completed in 1800, with its six movement format, is most certainly in the tradition of those Serenades made popular a generation earlier by Mozart and his contemporaries.

The Ensemble Acht has the arranger Ulf-Guido Schafer as its clarinettist. He obviously must have directed the group in this recording even if only in rehearsal. I mention this because the ensemble of the group is excellent throughout and as no leader or director is indicated this aspect of the performance is outstanding. Concerning tempi, however, I do have a few reservations.

The Septet opens with an elegant Adagio, which here seems a little quick and matter-of-fact. By contrast the ensuing allegro con brio seems a little too steady or it appears so by comparison. The Haydnesque ‘Theme and variations’ movement (No. 4) seems a little too fast to me for an Andante especially the playing of the theme itself. The following Scherzo however is very nicely judged and there is some very sensitive attention to dynamics. The horn (Christoph Moinian) here leads the merry dance as it does in the Menuetto in the Quintet arrangement. This is played at the same tempo as the Scherzo in the Op. 20. Without a score I can only query this. In early Beethoven the Minuets are often taken at a fairly steady pace. Is this what Beethoven intended? The two trios in the Menuetto (giving the not uncommon form of ABACA) are slowed down quite considerably which makes for a slightly disjointed view of the music.

The recording is intimate, detailed, but with space around it. One of the best recordings I have heard this year.

Gary Higginson

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