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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet in E-flat, Op.20 (1799-1800) [40:01]
Serenade in D, Op.25 (1801) [24:32]
Ensemble 360 (Sara Bittloch (violin); Martin Saving (violin); Marie Bittloch (cello); Laurène Durantel (double-bass); Guy Eshed (flute); Matthew Hunt (clarinet); Peter Whelan (bassoon); Naomi Atherton (French horn))
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, 28-31 May 2007. DDD.

Experience Classicsonline

The music here is ideal for those who find much of Beethoven a little too pompous; this is Beethoven at his small-scale unbuttoned best, a world removed from the Eroica and the Fifth Symphony. How could it be otherwise when the Septet was the model for Schubert’s even more charming Octet?

Surprisingly, there are several versions of the Beethoven Septet and the competition is fierce. To name but two of the strongest, there’s the classic Vienna Octet version, coupled with the Mendelssohn Octet (Decca 421 093 2) and, at super-budget price, an excellent performance from the Berlin Soloists on Warner Apex (8573 89080 2 with Mozart’s Quintet for horn and strings, K407). The Vienna performance is still listed on the Decca website but not by either of the UK dealers whom I tried; it must surely reappear as a Decca Original soon. Meanwhile it remains available to download in very good 320k mp3 sound from and, coupled with the Spohr Nonet, on Testament SBT1261.

Of versions which I haven’t heard, Stephen Francis Vasta noted problems of recording balance with the Hyperion Helios budget CD (CDH55189, Gaudier Ensemble, with the Sextet - see review), preferring the ASMF Ensemble on Chandos. Gary Higginson found the Ensemble Acht somewhat disjointed (Thorofon CTH2440 - see review).

Ensemble 360 is a newish group, founded in 2005 in South Yorkshire, where they perform at the Crucible and other venues. Their earlier recordings, on the ASV Gold label, have been well received: Glyn Pursglove thought their recording of the Spohr Septet and Nonet on GLD4026 intelligent and well-balanced - see review. I hadn’t encountered them before, so I was interested to see if their new recording for Nimbus Alliance would live up to their reputation, especially when measured against the Viennese and Berlin performances.

In fact, unless you must have an echt Viennese performance or prefer the Mendelssohn or Mozart couplings of the rival versions, the new recording stands up very well to the competition. There are some performances that one instinctively knows are going to be just right from the very start, and this is one of them. If Universal, from whom these recordings are licensed, won’t be issuing the ensemble’s recordings on the ASV label any more, I hope that this will be the first of a fruitful relationship, with more recordings licensed to Nimbus Alliance.

Ensemble 360 take the first movement a shade slower than the Berlin Soloists, but never sound too slow - in fact, they’re a fraction faster than the Vienna Octet. With secure playing all round, then, honours are about even in this movement.

They take the second movement, adagio, rather faster than the Berlin Soloists and a shade faster than the Vienna Octet; I might have preferred them to linger a little more here but, again, there isn’t much in it - I could happily live with any of these three accounts.

The differences in the third movement, tempo di menuetto, are more marked, with Ensemble 360 noticeably faster than the Berliners and a shade faster than the Viennese. I found that the faster tempo worked really well, with the players emulating a real Viennese lilt in this foreshadowing of Schubert. If anything, they even out-Viennese the Vienna Octet in places, though I give the latter a slight edge overall in this movement.

The fourth movement Theme and Variations (andante) take 7:30, give or take a few seconds, in all three performances; Ensemble 360 take exactly the same time as the Berliners, a fast-ish walking pace, and there is very little to choose between them though, again, the Viennese, just 6 seconds faster overall, have a slight edge here again.

The scherzo fifth movement is marked allegro molto e vivace and the Ensemble 360’s account is certainly lively enough to match that designation, with tender playing in the trio in contrast. They offer by a small margin the fastest of the three accounts of this movement and I’m inclined to award them the prize here.

Everything is to play for, then, in the finale and here, too, I liked the pace at which Ensemble 360 take the music, just a tad slower than the Viennese - there’s very little in it - and notably faster than the Berliners. Perhaps some of the playing sounds a little scrambled in the faster passages, but it’s not at all troublesome. Once again, there is very little to choose; I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who preferred Ensemble 360 here by a short head.

Neither of the rivals offers the same programme so, if you must have the Septet and Serenade together this is, I think the only option. The Gaudier Ensemble couple the Serenade with some other small-scale early Beethoven works, the Clarinet Trio, Op.11 and the Piano and Wind Quintet, Op.16 (Hyperion CDA67256 - see review). With Hyperion’s own download site about to go active as I write, I hope to explore this recording in a future Download Roundup.

The Serenade is also delightful music; its neglect is something of a mystery, especially when it receives a performance as sympathetic as that offered by Ensemble 360.

If you don’t have the Mendelssohn Octet, of which there are several really good versions, you might wish to choose the well-filled Decca/Vienna Octet download (74 minutes of delight). Just don’t believe the metadata, which will tell you that both works are by Mendelssohn. Similarly, if you don’t have the attractive Mozart Horn Quintet, you may well choose the Berliners. Both are available inexpensively, especially the Apex/Berlin version, but the new Nimbus CD won’t break the bank if ordered direct from MusicWeb International.

The Nimbus recording is good, but the download of the Vienna Octet, despite its age, rivals it. I’m not sure that I don’t prefer the older Decca recording to the slightly fuller and riper sound of the Nimbus, but don’t let that deter you from an hour of potential delight in the company of Ensemble 360. With notes by Misha Donat just a little shorter than the very detailed ones which he wrote for the Wihan Quartet’s recent Beethoven performances on Nimbus, but still both readable and informative, there is every reason to buy the new CD.

Brian Wilson 

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