courtesy of PIAS
Franz Schubert’s D. 803 octet in F major is one of his most delightful compositions, but it is also one that can be difficult to encounter in a performance setting. The required ensemble consists of a string quartet with the addition of a bass, clarinet, bassoon, and horn. It sometimes seems as if any piece of chamber music that involves a clarinet has a clarinetist behind it. In this case the clarinetist was Count Ferdinand Troyer who served as chief steward to Archduke Rudolf of Austria. Troyer was an amateur clarinetist with a soft spot for Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 20 septet in E-flat major, which was scored for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, cello, and bass. (Readers probably know that Rudolf was the Archduke to whom Beethoven dedicated his Opus 97 piano trio.) Troyer asked Schubert to write something along the lines of Beethoven’s Opus 20. Schubert replied with his D. 803, adding a second violin part while he was at it.
Schubert seems to have had no trouble using Beethoven’s septet as a model. D. 803 has the same number of movements (six) and pretty much the same structures for each of the movements. The most noticeable structural difference is that, in the fourth movement, Schubert provided seven variations for his Andante theme, while Beethoven’s variations movement has only five.
This Friday harmonia mundi will release a new recording of D. 803 with an ensemble led by violinist Isabelle Faust. The other performers are violinist Anne Katharina Schreiber, violist Danusha Waskiewicz, cellist Kristin von der Goltz, James Munro on bass, Lorenzo Coppola on clarinet, Javier Zafra on bassoon, and Teunis van der Zwart on horn. As usual, Amazon.com is currently taking pre-orders for this release.
Faust has long been an advocate for historically-informed performance. As a result all the members of the group are playing instruments appropriate for the time of the octet’s composition, early 1824. In fact, due to key changes, Coppola plays two clarinets, one in B-flat and the other in C.
Taken as a whole the piece is a delightful reminder of the sensitivity that Schubert could bring to individual instruments. Across the six movements the listener is led through an engaging diversity of sonorities, all of which are framed in conventional structures of the period that define paths from which Schubert never strays very far. One gets the impression that this music was intended for a social gathering of friends (probably all friends of Troyer); and it is easy to imagine that all who participated in playing this piece for the first time enjoyed the gathering.
For that matter, if my memory is correct, it has been over 35 years since I had a chance to listen to this music in a concert performance; and being reminded of its delights by this recording could not have been a more pleasant experience.