SCHUBERT: Octet in F Major, D. 803 – Quatour Modigliani/ Sabine Meyer, clarinet/ Bruno Schneider, horn/ Dag Jenn, bassoon/ Knut Erik Sunquist, double bass – Mirare MIR438, 63:00 (9/4/20) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:
According to the ailing Franz Schubert in 1824, “pain sharpens one’s wits and strengthens the heart.” No less a depressing factor besides his fatal illness that would claim him in 1828 lay in the model of Beethoven, who made Schubert feel his efforts superfluous: “But who can do anything after Beethoven?” Yet Schubert strove to exert himself in competing musical forms – the remaining two symphonies and in the Octet – despite any invidious comparisons with Beethoven.
This ambitious and genial work had a commission from Count Ferdinand Troyer, a clarinet player in Archduke Rudolf’s household and a fierce admirer of the Beethoven Septet. To Beethoven’s ensemble Schubert adds a second violin, and so he may exploit colors and maintain the close intimacy of a chamber work that exerts moments of brilliant concertante figurations. Schubert follows the same structural arrangement as Beethoven had in his relatively early Septet, Op. 20 (1800), a kind of musical preparation for his Symphony No. 1 in C: six movements, the first and last preceded by a slow introduction. Each work, respectively, has a fourth movement Theme and Variations. Both composers look back to the cassation and divertimento tradition popular with Viennese public, but Schubert’s work results from a maturity of expression and essentially Romantic sensibility the Beethoven piece lacks. The Schubert opus did not receive a public performance until 1827; then, having fallen into obscurity, it arose again through the efforts of Johannes Brahms and violinist friend Joseph Hellmesberger, who brought the 1853 edition to a concert realization in 1861.
The opening movement, Adagio – Allegro – Piu Allegro, takes its theme from Schubert’s lied Der Wanderer, and we think of the famous portrait by Friedrich. Among the startling sonorities, that from the French horn of Bruno Schneider stands before Sabine Meyer’s piercing clarinet carries the expansive Allegro forth in a sustained glut of voluptuous melody. No less hearty, first violin Amaury Coetaux makes his fleet presence known. Occasionally, a dark harmony raises itself up through the bustling good, country spirits; and later movements, too, will emit a passing sense of the Tragic Muse.
The sublime Adagio possesses a particularly, ethereal beauty presented by Meyer’s clarinet, accompanied by the expressive violin part, where the haunted, sad tone reflects something of Schubert’s heartbreaking admission of his letter to Leopold Kupelwieser, “I feel I am the unhappiest, most wretched man in the world. . .I sing. . .when I go to sleep I hope never to wake again. . .” The beauties of this music can find competition only in Mozart’s epic Clarinet Quintet. When the harmonies fill out in symphonic proportion, the dialogue between violin and horn, the Romantic haze enchants us.
The ensuing Scherzo and Trio takes up from Beethoven’s model of a study romp, the rhythm and horn work’s indicating something of the hunt. The juxtaposition of string and woodwind colors moves in a kaleidoscope of colors. Then comes the fourth movement, Andante theme – derived from Schubert’s unperformed 1815 Singspiel, Die Freunde von Salamanka, D. 326 – and seven variations. Violin and clarinet present the strutting tune whose folksy, good nature infiltrates the entire procession. Various soli and instrumental duos entertain us; but the fourth variant does wander into the minor mode, despite Schubert’s maintenance of the chordal structure of the original theme. The double bass variation enjoys lush sonority. The symphonic character easily appealed to Dvorak, who seems to have imbibed all of its wisdom. Even the following movement, the Menuetto: Allegretto exerts moments of pathos, despite its origins in the Classical and Baroque traditions. The Trio flows in fluid motion, Viennese luxury.
The gloom in Schubert’s life reveals itself overtly in the Finale: Andante molto – Allegro – Andante molto – Allegro molto, whose introductory measures in D Minor seethe with tremolos and sforzandos. We imagine Wagner’s delight in these chords, easily promising moments in The Flying Dutchman. Yet a joyful dance tune erupts, the smile behind and beyond the dark tears. The movement, a swirling and virtuosic rondo-sonata form after Haydn, never quite shakes off the spirit of melancholy. Suddenly, the music in its coda restates the introductory phrases in Romantic tropes, once more an adumbration of the equally brilliant melodist, Dvorak. Schubert, however, lets the unbridled force of good nature prevail in the last bars, the melancholy at last dispersed.
Recorded in September 2018, the performance basks in the warm luster of sound engineer Andreas Neubronner, and we sense the eight participants loved every minute of their seamless ensemble.