SCHUBERT Octet (Faust et al)
As the cover billing suggests, Isabelle Faust is very much the guiding light in this period-instrument Octet. Yet her creative inventiveness is matched by her considerateness as a chamber colleague. In a performance notable for its intimacy, Faust never seeks to hog the limelight even when an invitation beckons. A case in point comes towards the end of the first movement’s exposition, where cello and clarinet toss about a fragment of the main theme against skittering violin semiquavers. This is one of several passages in the Octet that can threaten to turn into a mini-violin concerto. Taking advantage of the delicacy and quickness of response easier to achieve with a classical bow and gut strings, Faust creates a dancing filigree that decorates rather than dominates the cello-clarinet duet: a moment that typifies her collaborative spirit and the care for balance that marks the whole performance.
While alive to the Octet’s Viennese hedonism, Faust and her colleagues are unusually responsive to its mysterious shadows, not least in the Andante and the Minuet, poised here between dance and dream. The period instruments, superlatively played (with minimal string vibrato), create naturally softer, more transparent textures than their modern counterparts. They make you uncommonly aware how much of Schubert’s score is marked pianissimo: say, in the first movement’s yearning second theme, sounded in turn by clarinet and horn, with characteristic touches of flexibility; in the rarefied duetting of the Adagio, its phrases floated over the bar line; in the clarinet’s diminuendo from piano to pianissimo in its solo near the start of the Scherzo, an effect glossed over in most performances; or in the magical horn solos near the close of the first movement and Minuet, sounding as if from the depths of the Romantic forest. Equally magical (a word that cropped up repeatedly in my listening notes) is the fourth movement’s penultimate variation, where the once homely theme dissolves into a hushed – and here, otherworldly – reverie.
After the eerie shudders of the slow introduction (which here sounds genuinely disturbed rather than mock-theatrical Grand Guignol), the Octet’s finale can often seem an anticlimax. Not here. Paying close attention to Schubert’s pp markings, the players make it airy and buoyant rather than hearty. As ever, the lighter period double bass ensures that textures are never weighed down, while the bouts of violin and clarinet virtuosity emerge as effortlessly joyous rather than merely frenetic. Impossible, of course, to talk of an outright winner among dozens of versions of this much-loved work. My own favourites include the Vienna Octet, 1990 vintage (Decca, 2/93), the Nash Ensemble (Virgin/Erato, 4/89, 10/94) and the more leisurely Mullova Octet (Onyx, 2/06). But the new performance’s transparency and intimacy, its fine balance of exuberance and poetic inwardness, make it an immediate front-runner. There is a delightful bonus, too: arrangements of two early Schubert minuets that infuse Mozartian elegance with the demotic spirit of the Viennese beer garden, duly relished here.