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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet in E flat major, Op. 20 (1800) [40:34]
Serenade in D major, Op. 25 (1801) [24:32]
Ensemble 360
rec. 28-31 May 2007, Potton Hall, Suffolk

Experience Classicsonline

Ensemble 360 is a group of talented young players based in South Yorkshire. These two pieces of ‘entertainment music’ by Beethoven give them every opportunity to display their instrumental prowess. They are aided by a splendidly clear and detailed recording, allowing details to emerge clearly within the textures while achieving a nicely balanced and atmospheric sound. The presentation standards of the whole enterprise are high, with Misha Donat’s insert notes a model of their kind.
It is the Septet that dominates the content of the disc, being approximately twice the length of the Serenade. Although the ensemble required by the former is unusual it is extremely effective, and the music proved to be instantly popular, more so than practically anything else that Beethoven composed. The first public performance took place at a special benefit concert for the composer, given on 2 April 1800 in the Hofburg theatre. There is a playing time of approximately forty minutes, and this is therefore a substantial work, with instrumentation consisting of violin, viola, cello, double-bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn.
The first movement begins as a classical symphony might, with a slow introduction leading into an Allegro. The performance gets off to a sonorous and pleasing start, while in the main Allegro section, the structural basis of the movement is clearly defined and the material cogently projected.
The lyrical second movement has three sections: the two outer parts are generally similar, and there is a contrasting middle section dominated by the violin, which moves towards the top of its range. The clarinet and violin have engaging solos, both played here with aplomb.
The third movement in minuet form is the most familiar movement in the Septet, since Beethoven used it also in the Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 49, No. 2. Here solo roles are given to the clarinet and horn in the contrasting central section, which brings a change of focus, though the tempo remains fast.
The fourth movement is more extended, a theme and variations exploring a range of options, and the performance might have been more characterful in its projection of these. Contrasts with the Naxos recording from Budapest (8.553090) reveal a more lively personality in that performance. This is felt also in the finale, in whose slow introduction Ensemble 360 adopt far too slow a tempo in the introductory phase, which is marked Andante con moto but played as if it is Adagio.
The Serenade published just a matter of months later also has six movements which on the face of it appear very similar to those of the Septet, and in the same order too. But there is less development of the material, with the result that the piece is much shorter. This is no bad thing, however, since with only three instruments – flute, violin and viola – there are fewer opportunities for variety of tone. The playing is again of a high order, the close scrutiny offered by the recording giving the musicians the chance to shine. The performance, like the music itself, is high-spirited, and the very fast coda of the finale is a tour de force.

Terry Barfoot

see also review by Brian Wilson


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