An outstanding Octet - until its plodding finale
Discophage | France | 11/16/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Gidon Kremer and his partners - among the most active soloists then and still today in Germany and the surrounding countries - made this recording of Schubert's Octet in 1987 during a European tour sprung from Kremer's Lockenhaus festival. It was one of the first to be released on CD, simultaneously with the Academy of Saint-Martin-In-The-Fields' second version on Chandos. It is and outstanding interpretation, brisk, strongly accented, with great dramatic impact - but with one restriction, though.
After a forward-moving and strongly accented first movement "adagio" introduction, the "Allegro" development, taken with its repeat (which wasn't the custom then, probably because of the LP's time limitations - witness the Chandos ASMF), is brisk and vigorous, with great dramatic impact. Kremer and partners take the sublime "Adagio" second movement at a gently flowing tempo and strongly mark the accents when these are called for (try the passage starting at 1:41); the clarinet is very much in the lead in this movement and Eduard Brunner, though he doesn't have a very silky clarinet tone, is capable of fine nuances, with marvelously hushed pianissimos. The movement's other highlights include a movingly lyrical cello at 6:04, the strong accents and dramatic impact in the last section starting at 6:58, and the haunting Berliozian flavor of the closing pages at 9:55, recalling the English horn calls in the slow movement of the Symphonie fantastique.
Unlike many others (and especially the aforementioned ASMF), Kremer and partners' pacing of the third movement is true to Schubert's "Allegro vivace" tempo indication, and the result is affectingly animated and boisterous - though not as boisterous as the period-instrument ensembles Hausmusik (originally on EMI-Reflexe and now Virgin) and Academy of Ancient Music (Decca/L'Oiseau Lyre), whose unique "hunt-like" horn color, at a similar forward-moving tempo, conjure wonderful echoes of Handel's Water Music. Unlike them, the Kremer ensemble applies a gentle relaxation of tempo in the middle trio, but retain its preference for strongly marked accents.
In the fourth movement - one of Schubert's customary theme and variations - the theme doesn't linger and is sprightly and spirited in mood. The overall approach is one of forward-moving tempos and sharp accents of great dramatic impact. And for the anecdote: in the first variation Kremer questionably indulges in a schmaltzy portamento - the kind you'd be more likely to hear in summer at the terrace of some Viennese café, integral with the fiddler's vulgar wink. But then - oh well, maybe it's not entirely inappropriate after all: there is something of the Viennese café in Schubert's Octet, isn't there? and I must further confess that Kremer has perverted me here: anytime I listen to another version, I now miss the darn little wink. Anyway, this the only glaring lapse of Kremer's good taste I was able to spot.
Again the Menuetto (5th movement) is forward-moving in the vein of the classic Wiener Oktet from 1957 rather than the more relaxed approach of the Fine Arts Quartet (1962 - Boston Skyline) or Melos Ensemble (1967 - EMI), and further characterized by vivid instrumental flavor, sharp accents and clear articulation.
This outstanding reading is then topped off by - but no! wait! It is not what you were led to expect. On the contrary, it all goes inexplicably amiss in the finale. After the tremors of a portentous "Andante molto" introduction (echoes of Berlioz, again), developing a great sense of suspense and pent-up drama, Kremer and friends chose a very deliberate tempo in the Allegro development; They are presumably striving for a sense of easy-going bonhomie, but, despite the strongly uttered accents, the effect sounds comically pedestrian (and heavy-footed at that), ponderous, plodding - it conjures images of the hippopotamus wearing its pink tutu, really: a mock imitation of charm. Oh well. I guess you can say it is indeed a very original and unique view of the music. Whether it is musically convincing it is a matter of personal taste after all.
Great artistry in a beloved but taxing work
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 01/03/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Schubert was the only great composer after Mozart to write a lengthy masterpiee in the divertimento style. Mozart usually kept winds and strings separate in his various serenades and divertimenti, but Schubert combines them, using a full string quartet joined by double bass, clarinet, horn, and bassoon. The result is heavenly in length (61 min.) but taxing on both listener (because of extensive repetitions) and players (because of the deceptive simplicty in the writing).
Therefore the Schubert Octet is rarely experienced as the masterpiece it is, and when there's no conductor, the whole thing can feel rather shapeless. This ensemble from 1987 is centered around the great violinist Gidon Kremer. It is sans conductor, yet somehow the Octet sounds artistically complete. Each instrument plays with real expressivity--nothing is tossed off as mere summer music--and all eight voices join in molding the contour of each movement. My only quibble is that the finale moves at too leisurely pace. But the whole point of the piece is patient delight, so that's not a fatal flaw.
The overall result is a rare thing, perhaps unique, a Schubert Octet that is so gripping musically that the time flies by."