Notes and Editorial Reviews
This CD from Decca in its new mid-price Legends series returns the Schubert Octet to the catalogue in a highly regarded issue from the late 1950's. The Spohr Octet, its coupling, is new to CD. They are products of the John Culshaw, Gordon Parry, Erik Smith era that is now looked back upon with such affection by those of us of a certain age. At the time Decca had established close connections with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, a relationship that already with Rheingold had started to give us the complete Solti Ring cycle. John Culshaw in "Putting the Record Straight" tells how the VPO was snatched by Decca from EMI, its long-time contracted recording label partner, and Decca signed up the then unaligned Vienna Octet through
the links established in negotiations with the Orchestra.
Willi Boskovsky, then leader of the VPO, and his brother Alfred had formed the Vienna Octet in 1947 and throughout its life - with its original personnel it lasted until the early seventies - apart from the occasional guest pianist its members were always drawn from the closely-knit ranks of the Orchestra.
Schubert's commission for the work was for "a piece exactly the same as Beethoven's Septet" which was all the rage in 1824 with arrangements, near-copies and would-be replacements being published everywhere. He added a second violin and wrote a longer piece - if all the repeats are observed the full performance would take over an hour.
And how does today's listener react to this Schubert Octet from 1959? In a word - favourably. The remastering has used everything that state of the art technology can offer but we are still left with a recording that does not have the immediacy and closeness that we expect these days and there is some unpleasant boominess and occasional honks from the double-bass and horn. Nor does it have the stereo spread that today's discs have. But, thank goodness, the spread is natural, there is some depth and perspective and there is no highlighting gimmickry. When an instrument has its solo or prominent part, at least it stays in the same physical plane as it is in for the ensemble passages.
The performance itself is a delight. This is team playing at the highest level and coming from where it does - no doubt a Viennese claim would be made for it as definitive (missing repeats apart). The sound of the group is warm and pleasant to the ear and apart from some lack of definition from the recording the blend of woodwind and strings is exemplary. My notes include the terms "Viennese lilt" (second movement Adagio) "irresistible" (Allegro Vivace), "smiling" (the minuet) and a single word "excellent " for the Theme and Variations. In some ways it sounds old-fashioned, with less attack than we hear from contemporary groups.
Ludwig Spohr's Octet has unusual scoring, for a single violin, two violas, cello, bass clarinet and two horns, thus allowing the stylish writing for the often prominent violin to be heard more clearly. The work is probably best known for its 3rd movement Andante and Variations - the theme being Handel's "Harmonious Blacksmith." The Finale too has an attractive lolloping theme and the whole is lightweight, easy on the ear music. Neither piece is too deep or too intense. It is happy music played by friends - at least that is the impression it gives.
For anyone interested in Decca's recording techniques, and in particular their placement and use of microphones, the web site at www.deccaclassics.com/legends will be of considerable interest. It also has the mouth-watering list of more of this Legends series. I cannot avoid mentioning the presentation of the disc itself. We all know the mock LP that DG do for their Originals - Decca have made their CD look like a reel of tape and it's quite eye-catching.
– Harry Downey, MusicWeb International
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