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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Septet, Op.20 (1799-1800)* [40:52]
Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon, Op.16 (1796)** [25:24]
Members of the Vienna Octet (Willi Boskovsky (violin)*, Günther Breitenbach (viola)*, Nikolaus Hübner (cello)*, Johann Krump (double bass)*, Alfred Boskovsky (clarinet)*/**, Joseph Veleba (horn)*/**, Rudolf Hanzl (bassoon)*/**, Walter Panhofer (piano)**, Manfred Kautsky (horn)**)
rec. 7-9 June, 1957* and 2-6 March, 1959**. ADD.
ALTO ALC1243 [66:27]

This CD arrived with another Alto release of classic recordings: Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in classic performances from Leonard Bernstein and Eugene List (ALC1247 – review).  I reviewed that some time ago and mentioned this Beethoven CD then – justly hailed on the rear insert as containing Legendary Recordings – as a reissue in the same league.  Somehow, my review of the Beethoven got lost in the works, but here it is at last.

The Septet is a cheerful work – a quality that Beethoven is not always renowned for – if not quite as full of beans as Schubert’s Octet, which was modelled on it.  Not surprisingly, there are something like forty recordings in the current catalogue.

This Vienna Octet recording, formerly available from Decca coupled with the Mendelssohn Octet – sample or stream from Qobuz – has also been reissued on Australian Decca Eloquence 4802403, a 2-CD set with their performances of Beethoven’s String Quintet, Op.29, Sextet for Horn and Strings, Op.81b, both recorded in 1969, and the Schubert Octet (1958).  If you don’t have those other works, especially the Schubert Octet, one of the sunniest works in the chamber repertoire, that Eloquence set for around £11 represents good value, but if you have their Schubert or another version which you don’t wish to replace, or prefer the coupling on Alto, that’s even better value.

Australian Decca have another rival recording of the Septet from the Melos Ensemble of London, recorded by Oiseau Lyre in 1960 and coupled with the Serenade, Op.25 (Eloquence 4802155 – sample or stream from Qobuz) and I’ve used that and the Gaudier Ensemble on budget-price Hyperion Helios CDH55189, with the Sextet, Op.81b, downloaded from hyperion-records.co.uk (mp3 and lossless), as my measuring sticks for the Alto reissue.

I remembered the Vienna Octet version as a little slower and more loving and the Melos as faster and livelier, but memories can play false – there’s very little to choose between the two accounts, with one slightly faster in one movement while the boot is on the other foot elsewhere.  The same is mostly true of the Gaudier Ensemble on Hyperion, though there’s a measure of disagreement about the adagio cantabile second movement with the Gaudiers (8:44) closer to the Viennese timing (8:59) and the Melos sounding somewhat slower at 9:20.  I think the faster times are adagio enough and they are both certainly cantabile.

The Hyperion recording costs around the same as the Alto and the recording is more recent, but you may not think the coupling quite as attractive.  Otherwise you can hardly go wrong with either.

The Piano and Wind Quintet, another sunnier work than we often associate with Beethoven, was modelled on Mozart’s work for the same combination – surely K452, not K542, as stated in the Alto booklet – with which it’s often coupled on CD, as on BIS-CD-1552, Stephen Hough with the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.  That version, heartily recommended by Michael Cookson – review – is my benchmark, as downloaded in 24-bit sound, complete with pdf booklet, from eclassical.com.

Walter Panhofer (piano) recorded regularly with the Vienna Octet from the early 1950s to the early 1970s and several of his recordings with them have been reissued on Australian Decca Eloquence, including a fine account of Schubert’s Trout Quintet (4803431, with Octet and Mendelssohn Octet) with which I happily became reacquainted courtesy of Qobuz, though I wouldn’t recommend purchasing their download: through the vagaries of economics that costs more than the 2-CD set.

I wouldn’t regard his Schubert as the last word: his playing can be somewhat literal at times and the same is true of his Beethoven by comparison with a recording like the BIS, but on the whole this is an enjoyable performance.

I’ve already mentioned that the Hyperion recording of the Septet is more recent but there’s nothing wrong with the Alto transfer of a recording made in the late 1950s.  I’m not sure that the 1957 date given is quite right, as this recording was first released in mono in 1956 (LXT5094).  I presume that the transfer was made from LP rather than from the master tapes, but you would hardly know.  The Quintet, though slightly younger, sounds a little restricted and the piano tone a little hard by comparison with the Septet and even more by comparison with the 24-bit BIS recording, but not unduly so and not enough to spoil my listening pleasure.

If you want this particular coupling, these classic performances are still well worth having.  With decent transfers and informative notes – brief, but better than you get from some other budget labels, Hyperion excepted – you should be able to find this CD for less than £6, far less in real terms than the £0.99 LPs that we used to think an irresistible bargain, so there’s no need to hesitate.  The Septet alone on SXL2157 cost almost £2 in 1960 – that’s around £50 in today’s values. What are you waiting for?

Brian Wilson



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