June 20, 2019
(++++) LESS-KNOWN GEMS
Schubert: Octet; Berwald: Grand Septet. Anima Eterna Brugge. Alpha. $18.99.
Mozart: Music for Keyboard (harpsichord or fortepiano) Four Hands. Patrick Ayrton and Wolfgang Glüxam, harpsichord. Fra Bernardo. $18.99.
Beethoven’s Septet and Mendelssohn’s Octet get plenty of attention and frequent performances, but other works for chamber groups of this size tend to get short shrift. And there are more such works than many listeners realize: pieces for mixed groups of winds and strings were something of a fad in the early 19th century. Beethoven’s work dates to 1799 and was a primary source of inspiration for Mendelssohn’s of 1825. A new Alpha recording featuring members of Anima Eterna Brugge now offers a chance to hear other works of this type from the same decade as the Mendelssohn: Schubert’s Octet (1824) and the Grand Septet by Franz Berwald (1828). The Schubert is at least mildly familiar, and deserves to be: it is a very substantial six-movement work that often lasts more than 60 minutes in performance – although less than an hour in this speedy but not rushed-sounding reading. The work’s length and virtuoso requirements are among the reasons it is not played more frequently. In some respects the Octet is a study for Schubert’s “Great” C Major Symphony, much as Brahms’ two Serenades were studies of a sort for his Symphony No. 1 later in the century. Schubert’s great fondness for winds, and considerable demands on them, is much in evidence in his Octet, starting in the very first movement – and his tremendous melodic gifts are evident in the second movement, a lovely Adagio. This is followed by a scherzo (although the movement is not marked as such) and then an extended theme-and-variations movement based on a piece from a singspiel that Schubert had written in 1815. The fifth movement is a relaxed Menuetto, but the finale is anything but genial at its opening, which is strong and has genuinely eerie-sounding effects. That opening eventually gives way to a much pleasanter Allegro, but the strange elements return before the work eventually ends, creating a somewhat quizzical conclusion. The Octet is more suite-like than symphonic in terms of the relationships among the movements, but the scoring is decidedly orchestral in style and scope, and Anima Eterna Brugge’s members do a first-rate job of balancing individual virtuosic elements of the score against tutti sections that sound as if Schubert is reaching for a stronger and deeper sound than would be expected in a chamber piece. It is something of a relief to have the Schubert paired with the much-less-familiar Grand Septet by Berwald (1796-1868), a Swedish composer who fell into obscurity for more than a century until his four remarkable symphonies were rediscovered in recent decades. Outside his home country, he is still almost completely unknown for chamber music, but the Grand Septet is also a worthwhile discovery – or rediscovery. Scored for clarinet, bassoon, horn, single violin (Schubert uses two), viola, cello, and double bass, Berwald’s three-movement work is much lighter in tone and much more clearly imbued with chamber-music sensibilities than is Schubert’s. But it is scarcely “light music.” In its 24 minutes, Berwald’s Grand Septet is filled with delights – and some touches quite characteristic of the composer. Notable among these is the inclusion of the scherzo within the slow movement – an approach Berwald also used symphonically. This means that the beautifully expressive opening and closing of the second movement enclose a bright, witty and very speedy (Prestissimo) central section. The first movement of the Grand Septet is more relaxed than virtuosic, and the finale – well, the finale as heard here has a higher dramatic level and more virtuosic demands than anything else in the piece. The reason for saying “as heard here” is that the performers make an interesting choice by playing an early version of the finale, not the shorter and somewhat milder one on which Berwald eventually settled. It would have been wonderful to have the later finale appended to the disc as a bonus, allowing easy comparison, but since the CD already includes 80 minutes of music, that was not possible. This earlier finale does somewhat overbalance the Grand Septet because of its sheer intensity – that may well be why Berwald later altered it – but it also makes for an exhilarating listening experience that will likely make audiences eager to hear more of this still-neglected composer’s chamber music.
Mozart, of course, is anything but neglected – but some of his works are much less often heard than others. The piano concertos, at least some of them, are extremely familiar to music lovers, and the 18 piano sonatas are well-known to pianists even though not many are frequently heard in recitals. But Mozart’s music for piano four hands is so little-known as to be genuinely obscure – especially when played as Mozart intended. A fascinating new CD on the Fra Bernardo label includes most of the four-hand keyboard music – performed on the harpsichord. And this is absolutely authentic: two of the sonatas heard here were designated by the composer as being for un clavecin ou piano-forte, while the third sonata and a set of variations were stated by Mozart to be written pour le Forte-piano, ou clavecin. These were not works for grand public performance: most likely they were mainly played in private by Mozart and his talented sister, Nannerl. And there is an intimacy and camaraderie inherent in the pieces that argues strongly for them as close-knit conceptions – not to mention the simple fact that harpsichords and fortepianos of Mozart’s time were small enough to require dual players to be very near to each other indeed. Two of the sonatas, K. 358 in B and K. 381 in D, are roughly of the same scale as most of the sonatas for piano solo; and both receive upbeat, bright, forthright and rhythmically assured readings from Patrick Ayrton and Wolfgang Glüxam, whose choice of registration is always apt and whose skill is evident throughout. The third sonata here, K. 521 in C, is more extended than either of the others, lasting nearly half an hour, and it has an especially impressive first movement that is almost as long as the second and third put together. Actually, this sonata’s final movement is not one of Mozart’s more-engaging achievements, but it does sound better and more interesting on harpsichord than on a modern piano. The CD also includes the Andante with Variations, K. 501, a slight work that nicely separates two of the sonatas; and the disc ends with a fugal fragment, K. 401, which breaks off abruptly after about three minutes – just as it is getting interesting. The entire disc is a most intriguing one, excellently played and providing a perspective on Mozart that is very seldom encountered: he is simply not thought of as a composer for the harpsichord, but he quite clearly knew how to write for that instrument just as skillfully as he did for the “modern” fortepiano.