SCHUBERT: Octet in F Major, D. 803 – The Gaudier Ensemble – Helios CDH55460, 59:46 (11/12/13) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Schubert extended the Viennese tradition of the serenade and kaleidoscopic divertimento when he composed his wonderful F Major Octet in March 1824 at the behest of Count Ferdinand Troyer, a clarinet player who served as chief steward for Archduke Rudolf, Beethoven’s friend and sponsor. Schubert took his design from the then-popular Beethoven Septet, Op. 20, adding a second violin to the instrumentation, and adhering to Beethoven’s six-movement structure. The two outer movements are preceded by a slow introduction, including a scherzo, a minuet, and a set of theme and variations. The Adagio easily reminds us of Schubert’s most tender lieder, while the theme-and-variations derives its tune from a youthful opera duet – from Die Freunde von Salamanca – Schubert composed at age eighteen but never had produced.
The spirited Gaudier Ensemble recorded this piece 21-23 December 2001, and recording engineer Tony Faulkner’s excellent work on the sonics likely did not require much reprocessing. The instrumental definition enjoys a singular “presence,” perhaps nowhere more rapturous than within the moving Adagio, in which Schubert reveals some of his wonted melancholy below an otherwise pacific surface that proffers a hybrid between a lullaby and barcarolle. The violins introduce a canon in order to move to the coda, and the clarinet (Richard Hosford) invokes a tone of somber recollection. The bucolic, somewhat “hunting call” Scherzo (Allegro vivace) juggles any number of dazzling colors in the air, especially those from the clarinet in concert with the doublebass (Stephen Williams) and the lovely French horn (Jonathan Williams). The string quartet alone performs a subdued trio section.
The Andante provides Schubert’s theme-and-variations movement, utilizing his opera duet tune in C Major. There are seven variants, and the first four typify a ‘galant’ formula in classical modes. We might note the beauty of the cello line, compliments of Iris Juda. At the fifth variation in C Minor, Schubert enters darker realms frequented by Weber, Goethe and Byron, having shades of a Walpurgis Nacht. A radiant polyphony infiltrates Variation 6 in A-flat Major, perhaps a romantic scene ante-dating the middle movement from Berlioz’s Fantastic Symphony. The woodwinds suddenly dispel any sentimentality by jeering at us, along with a string village band. Violin and bassoon (Robin O’Neill) contribute their fair share to the irreverence.
Another dance movement ensues, a Menuetto: Allegretto that looks forward to elements in Bruckner. Dotted (upbeat) rhythms pervade this genial character dance from the European court. We move from C to A-flat, which by now has become formulaic, except that Schubert’s colors never become dull. The trio section offers a country laendler that inverts the rhythmic impulse. At the end of the da capo, the French horn becomes romantically involved. More of the spooky Walpurgis Nacht atmosphere pervades the opening of the last movement, Andante molto, a daring intrusion into an otherwise sunny opus. Schubert might be pointing to his own A Minor String Quartet. At a moment of ppp, the miasma disperses into a clear F Major Allegro march of thorough optimism. Some dark trills do not break the progression from C to A-flat, though the polyphony becomes more strict and intense. The forces gather up in a controlled crescendo of real power, the theme a resolute fortissimo. The clarinet playing, luminous and richly opulent, makes a sterling contribution to the color mix. Our first violin – likely Marieke Blankenstijn – who has proved exemplary in all this, makes a shuddering intrusion with the slow introduction tremolo figure and minor- key flourishes once more, but the march renews its vigor and blasts all gloom into happy, ecstatic riot. Once more, we thrive in a happy glade!