Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Classics: Schubert's Octet may stretch our endurance but also stretches our delights


The (eventually) ebullient finale of the Schubert Octet, played by Chen Halevi, clarinet; Radovan Vlatkovic, horn; Sergio Azzolini, bassoon; Janine Jansen and Julia-Maria Kretz, violins; Maxim Rysanov, viola; Jens Peter Maintz, cello; and Stacey Watton, double bass -- from an undated AVRO (Dutch) telecast

by Ken

I don't think it's terribly controversial to suggest that Beethoven deliberately tried to limit the musical "difficulty" level in his Septet, with a view toward winning a larger audience, which would explain why he came to resent the piece's popularity. It's fine for what it is -- sort of an extension of established entertainment forms like the divertimento and serenade, which tended to jumble a whole bunch of movements together and then aim to provide agreeable diversion rather than excessive stimulation. But it hardly represented Beethoven's real musical ambitions even at the time it was written.

Of course even at that reduced level of musical invention Beethoven couldn't keep himself from stretching the forms he used, and when Schubert accepted his friend the clarinetist Ferdinand Troyer's challenge to write a successor piece, even though I think he too was trying to keep his musical ambitions in check, in Schubert's case this was an even more hopeless ambition. One result is that the piece is huge, pressing the hour mark. Its six movements are too ambitious to string together as casually as the movements of a divertimento. This means the musicians not only have to solve the six movements but find some sort of "through line" that holds the piece together.

It's the Schubert Octet we've been aiming toward, having heard both Beethoven's and Schubert's minuets and scherzos Friday night and their andante variations movements last night. In the click-through we start -- where else? -- at the very beginning.



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