I’m a sucker for this area of chamber music that edges towards the chamber orchestra; I suppose that could include anything from seven players upwards, mixing wind and strings. There are many fine examples, from Beethoven to Martinů and beyond, but the Big Daddy of them all has to be Schubert’s wonderful Octet — though it was composed a quarter of a century after
Beethoven’s Septet, and inspired by it. It’s coupled here with a new work for the same ensemble – string quartet, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn – inspired in turn by Schubert’s masterpiece. This is Dunkle Lichter
(‘Dark Lights’), a short piece by the German composer Mario Wiegand, occupying the final track of the disc.
The music is played by the East Side Oktett, a group drawn from the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. The notes tell us that its nucleus is a string quartet first formed in 2005. Its members have been joined here by their double bass and wind colleagues from the orchestra for this excellent CD.
Although it is such a famous work, the Schubert is far from easy to bring off. It needs a tightly unanimous sense of ensemble, while the individual players must have the personality to project themselves as soloists when necessary. They also need to know exactly when and where to do that, otherwise the texture quickly becomes thick and confused.
This Octet is, like Mozart’s ’13 Wind’ Serenade, an ‘entertainment’ piece which, despite its good humour, goes far beyond the limitations suggested by that categorisation. It is full of subtleties and significant details - in its scoring, its wonderful melodies, and its constantly surprising and delightful harmonic twists. It has its moments of drama too, notably the sudden return shortly before the finale’s coda of the dark music from the introduction. All of this must make its impact in a successful performance, and the East Sides show they understand that fully.
Equally important is the fact that Schubert wrote the piece for friends, and the sense of ‘camaraderie’ is an absolutely essential part of the work’s character. That is what, in the end, makes this such a very satisfying performance; there is a feeling of shared enjoyment, and a sense of ‘fun’ when appropriate. Even though the violin and the clarinet are in ‘pole position’, all of the group members make their contributions tellingly - though the recording is a little unkind to the lower instruments – bassoon, viola, cello and bass – who could be given some more prominence.
There are lovely things all the way through – the rhythmic lift of the first movement Allegro
, and its beguiling horn solo; the hushed pianissimo of the beginning of the Adagio
, so hard to achieve convincingly and the mischievous glint of the Scherzo. Then there’s the gentle grace of the Minuet, the clarinet shrieks – like an alarmed goose, all flapping wings and outrage – in the irrepressible finale and the charm of the Variations: listen to those fantastic low Cs from Uwe Holjewilken’s horn in the concluding passage.
This then is a really fine account of the Octet, and reminded me what a true masterpiece it is. It doesn’t oust the best recent account, in my opinion, which is by the Mullova Ensemble on Onyx, a version distinguished strongly by the playing of the eponymous violinist. The glorious Vienna Octet reading from the late 1950s is still around and sounding wonderful despite its age. There is always room for more with a work such as this, and the East Side Oktett provide us with music-making of the highest quality on this disc.
A word about track 7, Dunkle Lichter
by Mario Wiegand. It is a bit of a culture shock to go from the cheerful positivism of Schubert’s finale into the introspective half-lights of Wiegand’s opening; might they have considered beginning
the disc with this instead? Possibly. Though short, this is a really impressive piece; it has a quality that so much recent music lacks, that of providing distinctive, memorable themes, making it so much easier to follow the composer’s thought processes. The writing for the instrumental combination, surely an enticing one for any composer, is assured and highly effective.