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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Octet D.803 [61:00]
Five Menuets & Trios D.89 [9:11]
Isabelle Faust & Anne Katherina Schreiber (violins), Danusha Waskiewicz (viola), Kristin von der Goltz (cello), James Munro (double bass), Lorenzo Coppola (clarinet), Teunis van der Zwart (horn), Jaview Zafra (bassoon)
rec. Teldex Studio, Berlin, 2017
HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902263 [70:11]

In her booklet notes for this release, Isabelle Faust says that what drew her towards recording Schubert’s Octet with period instruments was the “expressive irregularities” of the instruments, saying that she was drawn to their “less homogeneous, less monochrome sound” in comparison with modern instruments. If that was her motivation then she has managed to convey that admirably, because this lovely recording is as good a Schubert Octet as you’re likely to hear.

Faust draws attention as the big name on this disc, and I confess I hadn’t come across any of the other musicians heretofore; but this is most definitely a team effort, and thus it fulfils so much of what makes the very best Schubert chamber performances: a union of equals with a delightful sense of collective music-making.

Those period instruments are vital to the sound texture, and their juicy lack of homogeneity is, indeed, delightful; but they’re never intrusive: instead they sound just right. There is, for example, a beautiful sense of space to the opening amidst which the period strings make themselves instantly apparent, but there is nothing at all abrasive about their sound. In fact, there’s a lovely sense of balance throughout the recording, with the winds slotting in beautifully. The clarinet and bassoon, in particular, have bags of character, and the natural horn sounds clean and focused, with nary a danger of cracking. In fact, if you’d been looking for a textbook example of how to illustrate Faust’s point about “expressive irregularities” then I think you’d struggle to find a better one.

There is a delightful sense of ease to the second movement, with the clarinet rising rhapsodically above the strings, and there is a lovely sense of the winds acting as balm to soothe away the problems we hear in the strings’ tensions. The Scherzo is light-footed and cheeky, with a pleasing flow to the Trio, and the variations are beautifully paced and structured, the violin acting like a narrator as it launches the theme, and then teaming up with the clarinet to make an amicable guide through the movement’s joys.

There is a stately, rather grand feel to the Menuet, and an uncommon sense of high drama in the slow introduction to the finale. However, this quickly gives way to a run through the main allegro that feels weighty and symphonic. When the music of the anguished introduction returns the shudder on the violin is chilling, reinforcing Faust’s point about period sound, but it’s wonderful, and leads into an utterly delightful bounce through the final coda, ending the work with a broad smile and a flash of joy.

The Menuets that follow aren’t particularly substantial, but they’re a fun filler, and they set the seal on what is the finest Schubert disc I’ve heard this year. It’s also wonderful to have it as an example of Faust the collaborator, someone who isn’t just a star soloist but who can make the finest music with colleagues, too. I get the impression they must have had a wonderful time making the disc. It certainly gave me huge pleasure to listen to, and I think it’ll do the same for you.

Simon Thompson

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