Romantic Chamber Music
CD 1
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847) Sextet in D, Op 110 [30:46]
Conradin KREUTZER (1780-1849) Grand Septet in E flat, Op 62 [32:45]
CD 2
Franz BERWALD (1796-1868) Grand Septet in B flat [23:20]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887) Piano Quintet in C minor [20:49]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908) Piano Quintet in B flat [32:58]
Wiener Oktett (Vienna Octet) (Anton Fietz, Wilhelm Hübner (violin); Günther Breitenbach, (violas), Ferenc Mihály (cello), Burghard Kräutler (double-bass), Alfred Boskovsky (clarinet), Wolfgang Tomböck (horn), Ernst Pamperl (bassoon), Werner Tripp (flute)); Walter Panhofer (piano)
rec. September 1968 (Mendelssohn, Borodin), October 1968 (Kreutzer, Berwald), November 1972 (Rimsky-Korsakov), Sofiensaal, Vienna, Austria. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 2397 [63:31 + 77:07]

A matter of days before this disc arrived in the post, a fellow listener whose judgment I trust raved about the new Eloquence budget-price reissues of the Wiener Oktett. If he could, he said, he would buy all ten of the new discs. It’s hard not to share that enthusiasm: indeed, after auditioning two of the releases for reviews on this site, I ran out and bought two more.

This set in particular might be the best place to start. The ‘Romantic Chamber Music’ program underscores the Wiener Oktett’s penchant for off-the-beaten-track repertoire and its stylish, sunny interpretations. I can’t imagine Decca recording a new recital of Franz Berwald and Conradin Kreutzer today, and they’d be hard-pressed to find an ensemble this good to play it.

The Oktett’s provenance — it was composed of players from the Vienna Philharmonic and Symphony orchestras, and there were more than eight performers so that the ensemble could tackle numerous instrumentations — goes a long way toward explaining the players’ supreme technical command. They also have real joie de vivre, a distinct personality, so that one can feel a fresh breeze through the whole program. The Wiener Oktett are at their best bringing out the perfumed charm and freshness of scores; that their leader, violinist Willi Boskovsky (although not heard on this disc), went on to conduct huge swathes of Johann Strauss is no coincidence.

The sunny dispositions of the players are especially clear in the Grand Septets by Kreutzer and Berwald. The Kreutzer, a sprawling serenade in six movements, pleases with a Schubertian gift for tunes and a string of bubbly dance movements. Berwald’s is a more compact, perhaps more expressive work, just the right length at about twenty-five minutes. Some have called it his masterpiece, and I would be hesitant to disagree: it combines the grace of a Mozart divertimento with droll wit and playfulness, especially in the finale. Like his most famous work, the Sinfonie singulière, the adagio is interrupted by a peppy dance.

Another item on the program strikes a darker note: Borodin’s Piano Quintet. The Viennese handle the change in tone by playing up the lyricism of the Russian work, not hard to do given its emotive and melodic appeal; pianist Walter Panhofer, especially, has many opportunities to wax poetic, including the atmospheric opening.

Borodin’s contribution is followed up by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s quintet for piano and winds, a work so sprightly and chipper as to border, in its opening moments, on self-parody. The Vienna winds, especially the opening bassoon and clarinet solos, are just so darn cheery and bouncy! The slow movement brings reminders of the composer’s true identity, including a Russian folk-song interjected near the end, and the clarinet has a rich, folk-like solo in the finale around 3:50, as well. All of it is played with charm and a pleasing palette of colors by the Wiener Oktett.

Rounding out the set - actually, opening it - is Felix Mendelssohn’s Sextet, given an excellent performance by five string players and pianist Walter Panhofer, who can occasionally dominate proceedings but sounds great doing it. Indeed, the Oktett’s style is as perfectly suited to Mendelssohn’s colorful romantic cheer as it was to Kreutzer’s classicized dance movements. There’s not a dud performance on these discs.

The sound quality is fine, dating from 1968-72; though they don’t have the depth or realism of today’s recordings, they are never a problem. If you have yet to hear the more obscure works on offer here, by Kreutzer, Berwald, and indeed Borodin and Rimsky-Korsakov, the Wiener Oktett’s charming playing will win you over with ease; while their style is not well-suited to music with gravitas, it is pitch-perfect in this recital. The result is two compact discs of chamber music heaven.

Brian Reinhart

The Decca Eloquence series - Wiener Oktett
Dvorak: Sextet / String Quintets Opp. 77 & 97 / String Quartet / Bagatelles 480 2375 CDs: 2
Mozart From A Golden Age - Four Divertimenti 480 4328 CDs: 2
Mozart / Beethoven / Michael Haydn - Chamber Music 480 2378 CDs: 2
Romantic Chamber Music - Mendelssohn / Kreutzer / Berwald / Borodin etc 480 2397 CDs: 2
Beethoven: Sextet / Septet / Piano Quintet; Schubert: Octet 480 2403 CDs: 2
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet / Mozart: Clarinet Quintet / Baermann: Adagio 480 3795 CDs: 1
Mozart: Five Divertimenti / March in D major 480 2394 CDs: 2
Spohr: Chamber Music 480 2400 No. CDs: 2
Mendelssohn: Octet in E flat / Schubert: Piano Quintet 'Trout' / Octet in F 480 3431 CDs: 2
20th Century Chamber Music (Badings, Britten, Hindemith, Poot, Wellesz) 480 2406 CDs: 2

Tickets to chamber music heaven.