Schubert’s wonderful Octet (1824) seems to synthesize the 18th Century divertimento with the romantic ethos Schubert found in Beethoven’s Op. 20 Septet and the spirit of variation technique. Eminently open hearted and bucolic, the Octet has only one moment of tragic intuition, in the minor-key entry into the final movement, again an homage to Beethoven’s example. The extensive part for B-flat Clarinet owes its existence to the work’s commissioner, Count Troyer, who performed that part in the music’s debut. Only in the Andante does Schubert call for a Clarinet in C.
Clarinet, violin, double bass and French horn sing most bountifully in the Allegro section of the first movement, whose repeats provide it that “heavenly length” of the Ninth Symphony. The alternately lyric and bubbling character of the writing proves irresistibly infectious, the buoyancy of Klaus Stoll’s doublebass and Guido Corti’s horn delights to behold. The Adagio wafts transparent and mystical, alongside the slow movement of the Unfinished Symphony or the slow movement of the B-flat Piano Trio – maybe a touch of The Shepherd on the Rock. Some exquisite color dialogue between Corti’s horn and the cello of Manuel Fischer-Dieskau.
I have always had a soft spot for the syncopated Scherzo and Trio, with its bubbling clarinet part and its floating, lyrical melody in the high strings over a cantering bass line. A Schubert singspiel, Die Freunde von Salamanca, provides the tune for the inventive Andante con varriazioni. Mozartean simplicity reigns, until the fifth, affecting variation. The Menuetto plays like the soft version of Beethoven’s own jaunty Menuet in the Septet. Mullova’s violin responds sweetly to the plaints of the clarinet. Viola solo Erich Krueger makes his melodic presence known. Stormy tremolandi open the last movement, touches of Death and the Maiden which will return prior to the coda; but they subside to a merry quick-march, rife with transparent swagger. Mullova’s violin plays a concertante role the proceedings, whose impetus accelerates in the last to a spirited conclusion with a hint of Papageno. I first came to love this work through my old Westminster LP of the Vienna Octet, and this version with Mullova and esteemed colleagues more than emulates my fondest memories, its excellent sound making it a modern classic.