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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet in E flat major, Op. 20 (1799-1800) [40.30]
Sextet in E flat major, Op. 81b (1795?) [15.51]
The Gaudier Ensemble
rec. St. Michael's Church, Highgate, London, 8-10 July 1991
HELIOS CDH 55189 [56.35]

I've always been fond of these pieces: this sort of expanded chamber-music format always brings out the genial, carefree side of the younger Beethoven. Even the music's more solemn moments - as in the slow, deeply felt chorale that introduces Op. 20 - remain a far cry from the philosophical introspection and dramatic turbulence of the composer's later years.

The Septet's complement of "dark" winds - clarinet, bassoon and horn - suggests that it might be a correspondingly somber work. But Beethoven confounds expectations, deploying the winds principally as a unit supporting the strings. While the bassoon and horn, as expected, fill out the textures richly, the clarinet carries that richness upward into the range, its overtones infusing the sonority with brilliance, producing a satisfying chiaroscuro.

The Gaudier Ensemble members have a good feeling for the music's carefree, buoyant mood, allowing the first movement's brief excursions into the minor to cast only momentary shadows. The third movement is here rather a jaunty minuet; the strings introduce the fourth movement's theme with lightness and point. Starting the following Scherzo movement attacca is a nice bracing touch. The finale's basic Presto tempo feels skittish to me, but the players take the quick figurations in stride.

I'm not sure the recorded balance is ideal, though. The wind group sounds more closely miked than the strings, or perhaps they simply play more assertively. In any event, the effect is to underline the lightweight sound of the otherwise clear, accurate strings - it's like a pianist who plays "on top of the keys." Of the winds, it's mostly the clarinet that steps out for solo exposure, and Richard Hosford offers exactly the right smooth, lyrical phrasing. The bassoon is fine, but Jonathan Williams's horn sounds unfocused and uncomfortable, except when he plays out as he launches the Scherzo. The Gaudier's musicality and character are winning, but the performance by the St. Martin's Academy Chamber Ensemble (Chandos), though less incisive and distinctive, is more consistently polished.

The Sextet's high opus number is deceptive: although first published in 1810, the work actually predates the Septet by some years. The writing is sunny and uncomplicated, in the manner of Mozart's horn quintet, its obvious ancestor, with the final Rondo bringing in some of that score's joie de vivre. Here the string playing is more forthright and confident (or, perhaps, better recorded); the horns - Phillip Eastop joining Mr. Williams here - altogether more assured, with a hint of the raw edge produced by the valveless instrument.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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