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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Octet in F major, D803 (1824)
Wigmore Soloists
rec. 11-13 December 2020, Wigmore Hall, London
BIS BIS-2597 SACD [61:52]

Many people’s favourite version of Schubert’s Octet will be the famous recording by Willi Boskovsky and the Vienna Octet but that is well over sixty years old, and while the sound James Brown and John Culshaw gave Decca was excellent for its era, it invariably now sounds a little muddy compared with the clarity and brilliance of this new, very-well-engineered digital issue. Furthermore, not everyone responds to the very Viennese sound and manner of the octet led by the Boskovsky brothers; their approach is charming and flexible, but not without sentimentality, and they somewhat underplaying any of the darker undertones found by other ensembles in the Adagio sections and the beginning of the final Andante. Nonetheless their warmth and GemŘtlichkeit - compared with the Wigmore Soloists’ clearer-eyed and more sombre rendition – remain compelling.

This new recording features a distinguished group of musicians, led by its co-founders, the virtuoso clarinettist Michael Collins and distinguished Dutch violinist Isabelle van Keulen. Unlike the Vienna Octet recording, all Schubert’s repeats are observed and it is thus over ten minutes longer. Actual tempi are not always very different - although in general the Vienna Octet tend towards greater sprightliness - nor is Collins’ sound so very different from that of Alfred Boskovsky (Willi's younger brother); both are smooth, seductive and mellow, and often very light on vibrato.

There is no gainsaying the extra impact of the digital/multi-channel stereo/SACD sound here; its clarity is startling and it is recorded a quite a high volume, so beware. The impeccable balance reveals not only every layer of instrumental sound but the precision and facility of all eight players; the depth of sound of the double bass is especially well caught. Any of the ensemble could be singled out for unique artistry, but I must in particular commend the horn-player for such flawless playing of an instrument notoriously prone to blips and slips. The Wigmore Soloists are undoubtedly a little sterner and more serious in their execution of this miraculous work, but that more aptly embraces the constant juxtaposition of smiles and tears so essential to Schubert’s musical psyche. They are by no means above conveying a sense of fun in the tripping or lilting sections of movements, especially the playful, then, in the Trio, lyrical sections of the Allegro vivace third movement.

However, the core of the work as with Mozart’s Gran Partita, must be the Adagio and Collins’ solo clarinet in its opening could not be sultrier or sulkier. The na´ve theme of the Variations is embellished mostly by the lead violinist’s decoration and van Keulen is clearly up to its technical demands. The Menuetto exhibits more ravishingly executed instrumentalism, picking up on the wistful charm of the Adagio and again, the horn is especially velvety. The finale, by contrast, is at first full of coiled tension in that almost sinister introduction, with some lovely sul ponticello and tremolando effects before the rhythmic, energised Allegro, which is capped by a riotously exuberant coda.

Anyone seeking a modern recording of this seminal work will surely be completely satisfied with both the sound and the virtuosity of this new issue.

For those who like to go green, the slim cardboard slipcase is made of non-plastic, recyclable FSC/PEFC certified material with eco-friendly glue, soy ink and water-based varnish!

Ralph Moore
Isabelle van Keulen (violin I); Benjamin Gilmore (violin II); Timothy Ridout (viola); Kristina Blaumane (cello); Tim Gibbs (double bass); Michael Collins (clarinet); Robin O’Neill (bassoon); Alberto MenÚndez Escribano (horn)

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