Schubert: Octet

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: ASV Gold
ALBUM TITLE: Schubert Octet
WORKS: Octet
PERFORMER: Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: GLD 4005
For those who see Schubert’s Octet as a work of blithe, innocent charm, the 1958 Vienna Octet version (Decca) remains unbeatable. Subsequent recordings, though, have found more shadows and symphonic strength beneath the Gemütlichkeit, high among them the ASMF Chamber Ensemble (Chandos) and the Vienna Octet, 1990 vintage. This new version is in the same class. The players set the tone at once with an unusually tense, atmospheric account of the slow introduction. The Allegro combines a bold, striding impetus with poetic flexibility, as in the clarinet’s wistful musings near the end of the exposition. In the Adagio there’s ethereal duetting between Richard Hosford’s clarinet and Marianne Thorsen’s pure, sweet-toned violin. But the players are also acutely responsive to the music’s darker undercurrents; and in the brooding coda Hosford tellingly uses Schubert’s accents to enhance the sense of unease, even terror.

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Memorable, too, is the rhythmic kick of the scherzo, and the vivid characterisation of the variations, above all the eerie night ride of No. 5. There is more nocturnal angst in the finale’s slow introduction, where the Nash make full play on the Freischütz-influenced melodrama. The main Allegro is unusually measured; but what it looses in alfresco exuberance, it gains in toughness – and the steady tempo means that the skittering violin and clarinet triplets are not the blur they so often are.

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Occasionally I wanted more bassoon presence; otherwise the string-wind balance and the glowing, intimate acoustic are virtually ideal. There are moments of unique magic in the Vienna Octet’s 1990 recording – say, the horn’s song from the depths of the forest in the first-movement coda – but I should not want to be without the Nash’s strong and poetic performance. Richard Wigmore