Melbourne Ensemble and Dale Barltrop | Schubert’s Octet
Melbourne Digital Concert Hall’s Hamer Hall Series | Nov 25, 2020
In 1824, towards the end of his tragically short life, Schubert composed his Octet in F major D803, which he described as a “Grand Symphony”. Its 6 movements certainly make it symphonic in scale. It is similar to Beethoven’s Septet through its structure and key sequences but set apart by Schubert’s special gift for melody. Schubert adds an extra violin to the septet to score the work for string quartet and double bass, in addition to clarinet, bassoon, and horn. The work was composed around the time of his two other notable chamber works, the ‘Death and the Maiden’ Quartet and the ‘Trout’ Quintet.
It was first performed at the home of Archduke Rudolph of Austria where Count Ferdinand von Troyer, a clarinet-playing officer in the Archduke’s household, had suggested to Schubert he compose a work similar to Beethoven’s Septet.
The Melbourne Ensemble, performing live on Melbourne Digital Concert Hall from Hamer Hall, combined to introduce the first movement with a warm measured Adagio, unique in Schubert’s chamber music, followed by a lively Allegro. Rhythmic motifs were a feature of the movement, particularly the dotted quavers in the Allegro section. Both the first violinist, Dale Barltrop, and experienced clarinettist Philip Arkinstall, presented the themes.
The melancholic second movement Adagio opened with a solo melody from Arkinstall and was realised with great sensitivity and lovely phrasing by the octet. The vigorous third movement Allegro vivace started with a tutti, though the violin and clarinet were soon back to the fore. This Scherzo and Trio was based on two peasant dances, one with a dotted rhythm, the other a gentle Ländler in style.
The stately fourth movement Andante Variations was written as a set of variations based on a theme of a duet in the Singspiel ‘Die Freunde von Salamanka’ composed nine years prior. Like the Trout Quintet’s penultimate movement, its increasingly complex seven variations showcased the virtuosity of the ensemble’s instrumentalists in turn.
The simple sedate fifth movement Minuet and Trio suitably bridged the previous movement Andante with the energetic final movement Andante molto-Allegro. Both the Minuet and Trio sections started with a version of the dotted motif presented earlier. The delightful interplay between the strings of Dale Barltrop, Freya Franzen, Christopher Cartlidge, Rachael Tobin, and Stephen Newton and the winds of Phillip Arkinstall, Jack Schiller and Saul Lewis in the final two movements were a highlight.
The final movement Allegro section began in a somewhat sombre fashion with tremolo from the lower strings of Tobin and Newton. It heralded changes to remote keys and not infrequent breaks in the music that probably reflected his grief over a shortened life, though this was tempered by celebratory violin arpeggios that led to a purposeful ending.
The Melbourne Ensemble, all members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, gave a memorable performance that compared favourably with the benchmark recording of the Wiener Oktett, so I would highly recommend the digital concert to all music lovers, at the same time supporting the musicians out of the pandemic.
Dale Barltrop – Violin 1
Freya Franzen – Violin 2
Christopher Cartlidge – Viola
Rachael Tobin – Cello
Stephen Newton – Double Bass
Philip Arkinstall – Clarinet
Jack Schiller – Bassoon
Saul Lewis – French Horn
Photography: Teresa Noble, Arts Centre Melbourne