Beethoven Septet Op 20; Spohr Nonet Op 31

Peerless Viennese chamber-music-making that wears its years lightly

Author: 
John Warrack

Beethoven Septet Op 20; Spohr Nonet Op 31

  • Septet
  • Nonet
  • Quintet for Clarinet and Strings
  • Quintet for Clarinet and Strings

Here are four famous old veterans who have seen heroic service, reappearing from time time in various guises, never fading from the consciousness of those who met them in youth. For those of us who bought these records as an early part of our collections in the mid-1950s, it is impossible to dislodge them from the affections. Even now, to reach down my ancient dog-eared Deccas is to start a frisson of expectation, swiftly overtaken by delight in finding how good the LP sound remains. There are, of course, those who go so far as to maintain a purist line that for all the skills of modern CD mastering, the pristine sound is purer and richer. I cannot truthfully say that I notice all that much difference, and perhaps any feeling that there was a particular bloom on the original sound is a case of distance lending enchantment to the view.

The Vienna Octet’s performances once set a standard for many listeners learning the music, and doing so by endless playing of these records. Returning to them, after experience of many other performances, I continue to find them wonderful. The spring in the step of the Menuetto of Beethoven’s Septet and the elegance of the curving phrase that opens Spohr’s Nonet do not seem to me ever to have been bettered; countless details from these performances fit effortlessly into a long tradition which these players did not seem to have had to study, but simply inherited. Such, of course, is not the case with music-making: there is great craft in the composition of these performances.

Alfred Boskovsky’s simplicity of line in Mozart’s Larghetto is beautifully controlled, blending with the muted violin tone (and he seems never to need to breathe), as it is in Brahms’s Adagio, where he can merge into the strings as a secondary colouring in that richly scored music. The ‘Hungarian’ section of the movement is played not with the strong, almost peasant, tang which many players effectively bring to it; but there is something especially affecting in the gently understated manner of playing it, as if it were not imitation but a quiet refraction of experiences which Brahms was recalling from his youth. Many performances take the opening movement more slowly and ruminatively than this, but it is marked Allegro. The Octet’s easy flow has much to commend it, not least in the lightness of the allusions to the opening theme which permeate the music and return with such an affecting quality at the end of the work. It is not necessary to underline these references; they should, as here, seem to grow easily out of the music.

There will be those, nowadays, who are surprised by the light portamenti employed by the strings (especially the first violin); they do not sound out of place, even in Mozart, and certainly Brahms would have expected them. As the insert-note reminds us, this is music and music-making rooted in the Viennese Hausmusik tradition where the Octet must first have encountered the works; they are also masterpieces, and the line between domestic and universal here is seamless.

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