Schubert’s Joy-Filled Octet

Got the blues from too much real news about the fake news, and too much fake news about the real news? Harmonia Mundi’s recent release of Franz Schubert’s Octet (Oktett) in F, D803, on which violinist Isabelle Faust joins a superb ensemble of fellow period-instrument musicians, may be just the scream-saver that the doctor recommended.

In one of Schubert’s many great compositional acts of transcendence, he wrote the joy-filled Octet in February 1824, right after his 27th birthday, when his health seemed briefly on the rebound. By the end of March, when his syphilis symptoms had returned, he had premiered his String Quartet in a, “Rosamunde,” D804, and was putting the finishing touches on the heart-breaking Quartet in d, “Death and the Maiden,” D810. Yet, even as the pendulum swung from one extreme to the other, Schubert miraculously managed to rise above it all, and write a sun-filled piece where the clouds are fleeting, and cede quickly to the light.

Some commentators make a big deal of these clouds. Perhaps I’m a Philistine, but I hear them mainly as shading intended to provide contrast to Schubert’s steady stream of de-light–filled variations. However you wish to interpret them, it is the joy that chases away those clouds that will linger with you long after the Octet’s final note is played.

Written at the request of Count Ferdinand Troyer, who was also an accomplished clarinetist, the Octet was modeled on Beethoven’s Septet in E flat, Op.20, and intended as its counterpart. While Schubert’s writing unquestionably gives precedence to Faust’s lead violin, it offers multitudinous opportunities for it second violin (Anne Katharina Schreiber), viola (Danusha Waskiewicz), cellist (Kristin von der Goltz), double bass (Hames Monroe), 11-key B-flat clarinet and 6-key C clarinet (Lorenzo Coppola), horn (Teunis van der Zwart), and bassoon (Javier Zafra) to shine.

Faust’s light and sweet tone may differ greatly from the weightier and more piquant sound of baroque violinist Rachel Podger, but she shares with her colleague a total embrace of collaboration. Hence she emerges on this recording not as a star, but as a team player whose delight in dancing with as well as in and out of the notes of her colleagues contributes greatly to the sense of bonhomie that makes the performance such a joy.

An indispensable contribution to the recording’s success is the work of engineer Tobias Lehmann in the famed Teldex Studio Berlin. With the eight players spread across a large soundstage that is rendered intimate by the fact that they share the same plane, Lehmann does a superb job capturing the unique colors and glow of the authentic period instruments (including Faust’s “Sleeping Beauty” Stradivarius of 1704). If you listen closely to the soft passages in the 5th Minuet D89—one of two short Minuets which Faust had arranged for octet by her friend, Oscar Strasnoy to follow the Octet on this recording and make use of the same forces—and have access to the 24/96 hi-resolution version that I auditioned for this review, you’ll hear the light clicks of stops and keys as notes bubble up and down.

Schubert, like Beethoven, is a master of variation. Few composers were as skilled as he in holding interest for 45 minutes as a few song-like melodies constantly morph, and the lead is passed lightly from one instrument to the other. I, for one, feel blessed at the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this understated masterpiece via a performance that dispenses with grandstanding, and posits cooperation as the path to union with the Divine.

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