Notes and Editorial Reviews
Septet in E?. Sextet in E?
MDG 3010594 (60:02)
Of the two works on this disc, the Septet for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and double bass, has gained a firm foothold in the repertoire with some 40 recordings currently listed. Begun in 1799, it’s an early work, as indeed are all of Beethoven’s works for winds alone or for winds with strings, despite some misleadingly high opus numbers resulting from later publication dates.
Less often recorded, and a bit of an oddity in the composer’s catalog, is the Sextet for two horns and string quartet, op. 81b. Like the Septet, it too was written in the mid 1790s. Though it shares a common opus number with the much later-composed “Les Adieux” Piano Sonata, op. 81a, the two works are not related.
Beethoven never wrote anything like the Sextet again, but the real puzzle of the piece lies in how to classify it. Divertimento-type works scored for two horns and a string quartet were not uncommon in the latter part of the 18th century, and both Haydn and Mozart wrote for this complement of instruments. But it’s in the way Beethoven writes for the horns that makes the Sextet so unusual. It’s almost as if he conceived the piece as a chamber concerto for two horns with the accompaniment reduced to the four essential supporting string voices, not entirely unlike Mozart’s downsizing of some of his early piano concertos for performance
—by a string quartet accompanying the solo piano.
In the Sextet, the horns are the stars of the show, with brilliant fanfares and lots of technically challenging busywork, while the four strings are relegated to a subsidiary role, coming to the fore only long enough for the horn players to catch their breath. The piece is also in three movements (fast-slow-fast), rather than the more common multimovement wind and mixed wind-and-strings chamber works of the period, further reinforcing the chamber concerto notion.
Whatever the Sextet is or Beethoven intended it to be, it’s an interesting experiment from the composer’s early curiosity shop but not a memorable masterpiece. Not so the Septet, which is surely one of Beethoven’s most expansive and important early works. Its exceptional popularity in the composer’s own lifetime, overshadowing later works he considered superior, is reported to have caused him considerable annoyance. Nonetheless, with an eye on the cash register, in 1803 or thereabouts he arranged the op. 20 Septet for clarinet (or violin), cello, and piano, and published it as op. 38. This is not the same piece as another trio Beethoven wrote in B?-Major for this same combination of instruments, nicknamed the “Gassenhauer” Trio, op. 11, which is often included in its violin version as No. 4 of the composer’s standard canon of piano trios.
Founded by clarinetist Dieter Klöcker in the early 1960s, Consortium Classicum has distinguished itself as one of the world’s leading chamber ensembles, acclaimed especially for its performances of 18th- and 19th-century repertoire for winds. But as is clear from these performances recorded in 1994, string players are no strangers to the group. Why this MDG CD has only now arrived for review I can’t say for sure, but I suspect it has been available abroad for many years and is just now being distributed here in the U.S. But the Consortium has recorded the Septet and Sextet more than once, and this is not the same 1974 pairing of these works on a cpo CD reviewed by Richard A. Kaplan in
The Consortium’s execution is clean and sharply focused and the recording, as is customary for MDG, is brightly lit and very well balanced, clearly delineating each instrument. I find this to be a most enjoyable and recommendable CD. Still, if this particular coupling appeals to you, I wouldn’t want to suggest that the Consortium Classicum is preferable to two other very fine identically programmed discs, one with the Gaudier Ensemble, now on Hyperion’s mid-priced Helios label, and the other with the estimable Nash Ensemble on the unfortunately not so inexpensively priced ASV Gold label. In both cases, I find the playing a bit more spirited and perhaps more spontaneous than I do the Consortium Classicum’s performances. But the Septet, despite Beethoven’s dismay at its popularity, is popular for good reason and well worth having in more than one version. So, recommended.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Septet in E flat major, Op. 20 by Ludwig van Beethoven
Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria
Date of Recording: 09/1994/12/1994
Venue: Fürstliche Reitbahn Arolsen
Length: 43 Minutes 3 Secs.
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