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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Octet, D803 (1824)
OSM Chamber Soloists/Andrew Wan (first violin)
rec. 2018, Église St-Augustin de Mirabel, Québec ANALEKTAAN28799 [62:53]
The joy of Schubert’s Octet is its pervasive holiday atmosphere. The accented loud opening from the OSM Chamber Soloists thrills with expectation, then softens comfortingly and the loud-soft contrasts keep recurring like a succession of thrills. It looks as if this holiday is going to go well, but you can’t quite be sure with that blend of eagerness and suspense. That’s just the introduction; the main body Allegro is at first lively and full of sheer enjoyment, yet come the second theme, introduced by the clarinet (tr. 1, 2:35), reflection is given its due space and in the recapitulation that theme is first shared between bassoon and viola. All this allows you to appreciate the edge in Schubert: the eloquence and profundity lie beyond the lyricism. These feelings are shared by the group: as the main progress of the movement skips along convivially, the instruments often echo one another and at times one butts in, so, for example, just when you might be thinking that the viola isn’t often heard, it takes the spotlight (10:00).
If you haven’t identified the acronym, let me tell you that the OSM Chamber Soloists are all principals with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and I’d suggest that playing together in that larger context has been beneficial to the tight ensemble they maintain in this smaller group here. They contribute evenly and balance well, showing enthusiasm yet also a lightness of touch that avoids being over-dramatic. The horn solo in the coda is nicely judged: it smiles through its virtuoso flair, but above all sings.
I compared this with the 1958 recording by the Vienna Octet (Eloquence ELQ 4802403), a truly classic performance creating a formidable challenge for its successors. Their opening accent is a more arresting call to attention with a sense of lingering import, while the string playing in the introduction is both more affectionate and solicitous than that of the OSM Soloists (hereafter OSMS) and their more measured approach offers more attention to detail and sense of space. Their first movement takes the equivalent of 15:44 to the OSMS’ 15:14, I say “equivalent” because the Vienna Octet (hereafter VO) doesn’t make the exposition repeat and so actually takes 11:59. The VO Allegro has less pep but the second theme is more positive in manner, making it less reflective than with the OSMS. The VO development has a quietly glowing, rather than the OSMS’ spicy, intensity. The VO’s Più allegro which begins the coda is more disciplined and energized whereas the OSMS are more spontaneous. Where the VO are poised from the outset, the OSMS give us an increasingly assured and confident journey. The OSMS bring great gusto to the fast passages, sometimes at the expense of clarity of articulation, but wonderfully uninhibited.
The second movement Adagio begins with a clarinet theme of soulful, melting lyricism comparable to that of the slow movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, with a similar poignancy. In Schubert’s piece, however, the other instruments are more closely involved. Immediately after its first statement, the first violin takes up the theme while the clarinet provides a descant, from the OSMS one of yearning. The first violin then showcases the theme with the horn providing the counterpoint. In the recapitulation the cello has the theme and the clarinet’s descant is now more serene, but at its climax it becomes more troubled and then explores this change of course (7:00), soon with the bassoon joining first violin. The theme, then, becomes the community’s communion and this collective involvement is nicely detailed by the OSMS. Timing this movement at 9:54 compared with the OSMS’ 11:32, the VO more suavely emphasise its flow, though the clarinet’s breaking a slur at the beginning of bar 7 (the equivalent of tr. 2, 0:25 in the OSMS recording) is less appropriate than the OSMS break midway through bar 8 (0:31). What the OSMS cannot match, however, is the throbbing intensity and emotive richness of the strings’ contribution in this movement, especially the wonderfully lissom touch of the VO’s legendary first violin, Willi Boskovsky. On the other hand, the cooler, more objective yet pure toned approach of the OSMS is also satisfying and much closer to the norm in string playing today.
The third movement Scherzo is the OSMS’ chance to let their hair down. The quiet start by the strings is straightway repeated loudly with added wind instruments like whooping huntsmen; at the end of the first strain, and soon after the beginning of the second, the clarinet takes off as their chief, but later the first violin takes up that material in a more skittish manner. In the Trio, everyone is relaxed and polite, except for the nimble staccato activity of the cello which seems to be wedded to a treadmill. But even in the others’ time out, given the OSMS’ delicious pointing of Schubert’s accents, they simultaneously observe and mock an exercise regime. Timing at 5:57 to the OSMS 6:21, the VO Allegro vivace is crisper in presentation yet lighter in articulation. The VO’s dynamic contrasts are more marked, vigorously building to an exhilarating climax. There’s more revealing of the gradations of Schubert’s artistry here; the OSMS bracingly and even brazenly emphasise the elements of head-on experience. The VO’s Trio employs a similarly broad range of contrast, but is dreamy and wistful, with gentle accents.
In the fourth movement Andante, Schubert treats a sportive tune to seven variations. The tune came from his opera The friends from Salamanca, composed when he was 18 but not performed. It depicts a shepherd longing for his beloved in rapturous song. In the context of the Octet, it suggests something equally indulgent but more contented. With the OSMS it’s as if the first violin is again with the theme taking up the skittishness it displayed in the Scherzo. The clarinet doubles the violin and, as ever, elaborates further but the violin caps it for sweetness when joining it again an octave higher. Variation 1 (tr. 4, 1:14), however, is the clarinet’s turn for aerial manoeuvres in radiant counterpoint over the theme puckishly laid out in semiquavers, then at the end of the second strain the violin again enters an octave higher than the clarinet. The OSMS give the impression that a cordial competition is taking place? Variation 2 (2:29) has the theme laid out in double dotted rhythms by all the wind instruments and cello. The remaining strings provide an offbeat accompanying rustle in semiquavers. Variation 3 (3:42) features from the OSMS a fruity, relaxed horn with the theme yet also with floridly decorated cadences, all the while first violin and clarinet adding their own touches of glitz. Here, the clarinet comes off better, as the violin’s frequent upward sweeps, beginning in the lower register, are less clear. Variation 4 (5:01) is the cello’s turn to provide a version of the theme largely in flowing semiquavers, the highlight of which is going into its high register at the end of the first strain. The clarinet and first violin continue to have their soaring moments. The clarinet keeps up the pursuit in the second strain while the first violin is more reticent. They are more evenly matched in Variation 5 (6:21) which comes with a sudden swirl into C minor from C major, but the initiative is again the clarinet’s, assisted by the bassoon. The OSMS make a stark impression here, but we’re in the comfort of A flat major for Variation 6 (7:28) and in their performance you appreciate the lovely counterpoise of strings and wind contributions, albeit that the transition to the next variation seems a protracted calm-down. Variation 7 (9:52) returns us to C major with the clarinet chirruping the theme as if nothing has intervened, but with the easier task of presentation in semiquavers than the violins’ demisemiquaver garnishing, while the bassoon’s and horn’s rising semiquaver flourishes at the phrase endings are a joy. The coda is all contentment, but the magic of its mellowness is most memorably conveyed by the horn and cello repeat of the clarinet and bassoon lead, though I’d prefer the cello’s role as an undertow made clearer than the OSMS do. Timing at 11:23 to the OSMS’ 11:53, the VO provide a more natural Andante. The first violin starts it quite nonchalantly and, while things brighten with the clarinet joining, the mood remains one of quiet contentment, more of an inner happiness than the OSMS’ glee, while the whole movement has a more intimate feeling. Variation 2 has a happy spring to it which makes the OSMS seem aggressive. In Variation 3 the first violin articulation is clearer and the balance between the instruments more assured. Variation 5 doesn’t have the starkness of the OSMS but stands out in this performance in its unaccustomed restlessness and is thereby unsettling. Variation 6, delicately and glowingly detailed, has a retrospective feeling. Variation 7 manages to be merry without any ostentation and the closing balance between horn and cello is better.
In the fifth movement Minuet and Trio I feel that the faster tempo of the VO, timing at 5:31 to OSMS’ 7:39, better reflects the Allegretto marking. The OSMS give us a rather sober dance, then clarinet breaks out of it and the first violin and clarinet duet in pleasing, but rather decorous, accord. At the end of the second strain the first violin sweetly echoes the horn. Yes, there is warmth, but also, it seems to me, undue introspection. The OSMS’ Trio is straightforwardly jolly and trim, achieving a blitheness absent from its Minuet. The VO’s Minuet is more dance-like with everything fitting unobtrusively yet satisfyingly into place. The VO’s Trio is also given a lighter feeling by making clearer the doubling of bassoon and first violin. It has a simple, joyful lilt and indeed the whole movement is heart-warming.
The finale, like the first movement, has an Andante molto introduction, but the emphasis is on suspense created by the key change from F major to F minor, the tremolando bass strings, the sudden, loud accents bursting from the generally hushed atmosphere and the OSMS’ winds’ four haltingly pleading, three-note phrases before a seven-note one. There is then a pause, Allegro relief and F major is restored. Why? Is it Schubert replicating a spasm of illness and considering his mortality? Is it to state we should value our happiness because we don’t know what’s around the corner? Or is it just a dramatic device to make later merrymaking more striking? I favour the middle viewpoint but feel that the OSMS take the first and the VO the third. For whatever reason the OSMS’ Allegro sounds more like a steady gathering of resources than jubilant. The timing of the movement at 10:14, of which the introduction takes 2:09, confirms this, whereas the VO time it at 8:25 with the introduction taking 1:37. This might well be the fastest recorded performance, while the OSMS aren’t the slowest. Nor are the OSMS all gloom: their lines are long- breathed and the movement gets up a head of steam energized by the quaver runs variously in the strings. But tension remains. On three occasions there are rests of two bars which seem to be pregnant pauses. In the VO performance these are just welcome breathing spaces. The OSMS’ patient build-up to the triumphant return of the opening theme is effective, yet underlines that this has been hard won. There’s an almost palpable determination, with all the individual entries clear and trills splendidly articulated, but the sheer concentration takes away some of the zing. The return of the introduction has grandeur as well as adrenalin, then softens luxuriantly with the first violin’s hemidemisemiquaver tracery clear and beguiling, too, before the dash to the finishing line. From the VO, the introduction’s opening tremolando is a stimulating, not alarming, thrill and the three and seven-note phrases are placatory rather than pleading. The VO’s Allegro is light and skipping with a convivial thrust, so the clarity of the entries comes across as the desire to make individual, excited affirmations - and you feel their elation, whereas with the OSMS you respect their trimness. To sum up, for me this OSMS’ performance begins in exuberant high spirits but ends in diligent determination.