Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
String Octet Op. 3 (1866) [41:45]
Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
String Octet Op. posth. (1920) [25:47]
Tharice Virtuosi
rec. 21-23 August 2011, Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern, Switzerland. DDD
CLAVES 50-1207 [67:38]

One of these octets was written in the 1860s, the other sounds as if it was but in fact dates from sixty years later. One was written when its composer was a graduating student, the other by an old man months from death. One looked forward to a career, the other looked back over one.
The musical epicentre of Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century was Leipzig. Many composers studied there at the Conservatoire which Mendelssohn established in 1843. Within four years he was dead but his appointed staff together with his and their pupils carried on teaching using his methods until the end of the century. The kudos was enormous. Young composers (and performers) came from far and wide to study there and observe (or perform if they were good enough) rehearsals and concerts with the city’s orchestra at the famed Gewandhaus. Many came from Scandinavia but not everyone was happy when they got there. Grieg for example hated his time spent there from 1858 when he was just fifteen. He found the teaching stultifying and the Mendelssohn-worship oppressive. Svendsen, on the other hand, seized every opportunity to run rings around his teacher Carl Reinecke. Unlike other composition students, Svendsen forged ahead regardless of whether or not he received Reinecke’s approval and produced a string octet, string quintet and his first symphony during his students years, so even his conservative and sceptical teacher was forced to concede that ‘these works were written with great skill, … rarely have I met a student who has developed as quickly as Svendsen’. On the other hand, Grieg, writing in 1881, commented, ‘In contrast to Svendsen, I must say that I left the Conservatoire just as dumb as I was when I was there. I had learned a bit to be sure but my own individuality was still a closed book for me’. Svendsen’s octet for strings won him first prize and a performance at the graduation concert on 9 May 1866. Far from disappearing without trace as a ‘Jugendwerk’ it went on to receive outings in New York (1871), London (1877), Paris (1878), Naples (1880) and St Petersburg (1885). It was praised by the violinist Sarasate as well as Tchaikovsky, who enjoyed the capricious melodies of the scherzo when he heard it in 1874 and dubbed it ‘the most magical work to emerge in the last decade’ and the pizzicato passage at bars 13-20 here sound remarkably like the later (1892) Nutcracker ballet. Svendsen was hailed above Brahms as the coming man but it did not last and he spent the last 28 years of his life working in Copenhagen as a conductor. One can readily understand Reinecke’s attitude to his pupil’s taking such an independent stance; it would have been hard for master to outshine pupil as far as this octet is concerned. It bears all the hallmarks of a mature composer, oozes confidence, doesn’t bother to tick the right boxes (not a fugue in sight for the examiners to pick over) and has a scherzo which requires eight virtuosi.
At the end of his life, Bruch returned to chamber music. In his youth he wrote two string quartets and a piano trio, in mid-life a piano quintet and at the end two string quintets and an octet. The violinist Willy Hess encouraged him to write these final three as had other violinists Ferdinand David, Joseph Joachim and Pablo de Sarasate other works throughout his long life of 82 years. There is therefore a bias towards the first violin unlike the Svendsen octet. Bruch’s music is amazingly energetic and virile for a man of his years. Photos of him at that time show a Methuselah-like bearded and bespectacled old man. At climactic moments towards the end of the development in the first movement and shortly thereafter in its coda, one senses the music of a young man in a passionate outburst frustrated that it is being played by only eight musicians. Bruch writes a valedictory Adagio in Schubertian mode, which could have been one of his songs or the famous string quintet. The focus throughout is on beauty of melody which he always considered paramount, starting with the slow movement of the G minor violin concerto half a century earlier. Like the second symphony (1870, Op.36) there is no scherzo in the octet though the finale has the style of one if not its structure. Its second subject’s melody is a dream and once heard never forgotten. Indeed that could be said of the whole work together with the two string quintets, all three now published and recorded.
Bruch’s octet is billed here as a concerto for string octet, which is misleading. While it is a reworking of a string quintet from a year earlier in 1919 (no longer extant) his handwriting states quite clearly Octett. Not Max but his daughter-in-law Gertrude wrote ‘concerto’ on the parts she copied for the BBC projected broadcast in October 1937 - only the A minor quintet was selected. She also wrote Oktett whereas Max wrote the old-fashioned Octett so it’s easy to establish who wrote what. It was probably misconstrued as such simply because, like a concerto, it is in three movements and not four. Regarding the alternative ‘string orchestra’, again this had nothing to do with Bruch but was probably a marketing ploy by its projected publisher Eichmann - he never did publish it - to give it wider dissemination.
My other issue, and it’s a more serious one, is the unaccountable use on this recording of a second cello instead of a double bass. Without it the sound is quite wrong and a colour ingredient lacking, while the texture loses the dimension of the lower octave line. The result is akin to an organ being played on manuals only without pedals. This is not a double string quartet - like Mendelssohn’s. The eighth line of the score - now in the Vienna State Library since its discovery and sale at auction after my biography was published in 1988 - is clearly marked ‘Basso’, the seventh line is clearly ‘Violoncello’. There can be no doubt as to its necessity - I refer the reader to the recording made by Ensemble Ulf Hoelscher on CPO 999 451-2.
Svendsen’s octet is well served by the players who make up the Tharice Virtusoi The scherzo walks a tightrope at times thanks to a tempo which fizzes along but the result is outstanding and the disc worth buying for that movement alone - the rest of the music is very attractive and not to be dismissed as a hear-once new work. Accolades aplenty are due elsewhere. Their technical achievement is exemplary, accuracy of ensemble impeccable; they have a wonderful sense of style and play this music with relish and romanticism.
Only that inexplicably absent double bass in Bruch disappoints.  

Christopher Fifield 

These two octets are well served by the Tharice Virtusoi; only that inexplicably absent double bass in Bruch disappoints.