SVENDSEN: String Octet in A Major; BRUCH: String Octet – Tharice Virtuosi – Claves

Two octets of impressive scale receive intimately ardent renditions in these 2011 performances.

SVENDSEN: String Octet in A Major, Op. 3; BRUCH: String Octet in B-flat Major, Op. posth. – Tharice Virtuosi – Claves 50-1207, 67:38 (6/8/12) [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Given the current amount of attention allotted to violinist and pedagogue Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999), this disc of energetic octets from the ensemble Tharice Virtuosi – founded in 2007 – seems appropriate, since these musicians assembled through the Menuhin Music Academy Gstaad. The performances (rec. 21-23 August 2011) come to us via the Swiss label in luminously pungent sound, courtesy of Recording Producer and Editor Andreas Werner.

Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) stands as Norway’s second greatest composer, after Edvard Grieg. Svendsen’s imposing 1866 String Octet takes several of its compositional cues from the archetypal example of Mendelssohn’s Op. 20. The opening Allegro risoluto ben marcato alternates youthful exuberance with intimate lyricism, the secondary theme’s favoring the tenor and bass instruments. Studies at the Leipzig Conservatory guarantee Svendsen’s comfort with sonata-form. Some of the melodic tissue broadens out in a manner reminiscent of Dvorak. The chordal unison as we approach the coda proves effective, as does the writing for the higher register violins. The entire last minute trembles and soars in a truly Mendelssohn fashion, especially when that composer has the inspirational demon at his command.

Svendsen’s Allegro scherzoso bears the elfin, impish earmarks of the Mendelssohn ethos, as well as an energy that nods to Schubert and Beethoven. The first violin (Liviu Prunaru) occasionally departs from the ensemble in concertante fashion; at other points the ensemble embarks upon canons in the upper and lower parts while the interior lines change sides. The middle section features a haunted tune that both Dvorak and Schubert would compliment. The transition to the da capo’s plucked and tremolo textures includes some brief, dazzling counterpoint. The coda sounds like a romp from Gottschalk. The expansive Andante sostenuto divides the strings into a double-quartet medium at key points, with the main melody’s having all of the sentimental persuasion of Brahms in his B-flat Sextet. The music found a sympathetic ear in Saint-Saens, who quotes the opening motif in his minuet for his a minor Cello Concerto. The more playful figures enjoy a capricious spirit in the manner of Grieg. The Finale: Moderato movement opens in a Schubert style, with sweet punctuations in the lower strings. A briskly galloping folk dance ensues, accompanied by busily intense figures in all parts under the lead violin. How often the lyrical aspect of this works recalls Dvorak! Sophia Reuter’s viola sounds no less compelling than Prunaru’s expressive violin, here realizing a work that dispels any sense of stereotypical “gloom” in Scandinavian music.

Max Bruch (1838-1920) endures essentially on the basis of a few, select violin vehicles and his cello setting of Kol Nidrei. The three-movement Octet stands as his last major project, conceived the year of his death. Bruch scores a double bass where a second cello resides in the octets of Mendelssohn and Svendsen, perhaps a concession to the Schubert Trout Quintet sonority. Rife with melodic invention, the opening Allegro moderato reveals no weakening of Bruch’s expressive powers. Pungent accents and full, resonant ensemble urge the first movement along, wherein individual string lines provide lulling transitions. A four-note motif enters but with more of Mendelssohn’s method than Beethoven’s “fateful” symmetry. The first violin often soars in luxurious rapture, quite in the mode of the concertos and concert-pieces that usually attach to Bruch’s persona. The Adagio is set in e-flat minor and begins with a mood entirely reminiscent of Schubert, a violin melody cast against a stuttering phrase in the bass. The redolent harmonic shift to B Major seems a Brahms maneuver, but the character of Bruch’s especial lyricism remains, a flowing, intimate song without words. The Allegro molto that concludes the piece opens with a dark, sturm und drang impulse close in its martial bravura spirit to Schumann tinged by the “fairy” element in Mendelssohn. The textures assume a rhapsodic quality, a genuine string serenade of persuasively romantic character, here from a composer who enjoys a potent “Indian summer” of creative imagination.

—Gary Lemco

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