Schubert: Octet in F, D803

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LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Octet in F, D803
PERFORMER: Gaudier Ensemble
This is hard. The Gaudier Ensemble’s first recording of the Schubert Octet on ASV was much praised when it first appeared, and over a decade later it still sounds like a front-runner. The poetry, refinement and superb sense of the long singing line are as impressive as ever – the sixth variation of the Andante has an almost timeless loveliness, while the dark, minor-key introduction of the finale is unusually gripping. But this new Hyperion version has its special qualities, too. I suppose it depends what you want from the Octet: whether you value the work as an important stage on what Schubert himself called the ‘way to a grand symphony’ or it remains pre-eminently a piece of large chamber music: Romantic, expansive, but intimate in its pleasures. If the former, then stick with the old ASV version; if the latter, then the new Gaudier is more likely to be the one for you. Here the playing – helped by the less glamorously spacious recording – draws the attention in towards details. The sense of purpose is still strong, but the effect is more quick-witted, with a finer sense of inner tension – the players responding minutely to each other. It can’t just be the new personnel among the top three string parts; there also seems to have been a change in the other players’ understanding of the piece. On the down side, the new version is never quite as breathtakingly beautiful as the old one; on the plus side, it’s more consistently compelling, the beauty less generalised. Take your pick. If forced, I’d choose the Hyperion, but by the thinnest whisker. Stephen Johnson