John Metcalf’s Octet Premieres in Cardiff

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Metcalf: Ensemble Cymru. St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 20.11.2018. (PCG)

Ensemble Cymru

Schubert Octet in F, D803

John Metcalf Octet (first performance)

It is often Beethoven who is credited (or blamed) for the expansion of works written in the classical tradition to new and unprecedented lengths, with massive symphonies such as his Third or Ninth cited in evidence. But at the same period Schubert too was writing pieces in the classical tradition which vastly increased the duration of music constructed in the same style, not only in the ‘heavenly length’ of his so-called ‘Great’ C major symphony, but also in such essays as the Unfinished Symphony which – if it had been completed on the same scale as the two existing movements – might well have exceeded the parameters of Beethoven’s Eroica. In the same way Schubert’s Octet, written in tribute to Beethoven’s Septet (and to a commission from the same source), burst the bounds of its model with its duration of over an hour. Some performances have sought to bring the music within ‘reasonable’ confines by omitting many, or most, of Schubert’s numerous marked repeats; but such practices can result in serious disfigurement of the proportions of one section at the expense of another, and the consequences can result in serious misrepresentation of the composer’s intentions.

Nonetheless be conceded that Schubert’s massively lengthy six-movement score does have its longueurs. Not the beautifully rapt slow Adagio second movement, or the scherzo-like dance of its Allegro vivace third; but the long set of variations on a theme from Schubert’s Die Freunde von Salamanka, or the comparatively conventional minuet that follows, can begin to outstay their welcome. And the finale, with its lively rondo construction continually interrupted by dramatic tremolo passages on cello and viola preceded by moments of silence, can have a sense of discontinuity that anticipates Bruckner’s symphonies. Schubert’s scoring too, with only the clarinet to provide colouring in the upper woodwind, can lead to a sense of heaviness in the textures. Not that any of these drawbacks reflects on the playing of the excellent Ensemble Cymru. All the players distinguished themselves in the characterful nature of their delivery, and never was a sour note or mistuned harmony in sight even when Schubert’s sometimes adventurous (and wayward) modulations might have provided a reasonable excuse.

This ensemble has an excellent record of commissioning new works to reflect the scoring of the larger-scale pieces that feature in their programmes. Earlier this year, the instrumentation of Bax’s Octet provided a springboard for Gareth Glyn’s To the four winds which I reviewed with considerable enthusiasm (review click here). Here John Metcalf had been asked to furnish a new work to reflect the more intractable nature of Schubert’s choice of players for his Octet: string quintet, horn, clarinet and bassoon. The resulting sound was quite different from its classical model, however: John Metcalf ingeniously construed his instrumentation to produce a lighter and more buoyant sound in a set of variations on the Welsh folksong Bugeilo’r Gwenith Gwyn. The work consisted of seven sections, all but the last two separated by short pauses. After a slow and sombre introduction, sections of the folksong were passed between the instruments in a playful but almost pastoral dialogue. Virtuosity was reserved for the second variation. A scherzo-like dance led in its turn to a very beautiful meditation; the tune was reduced to almost a skeletal form of itself over harp-like string pizzicato and crowned with soaring stratospheric violin harmonics which recalled the music of Arvo Pärt in their conjuration of an other-worldly atmosphere. A hymn-like fourth variation, with the melodic material contrasted in duet between the ethereal violin of Florence Cooke and the dreamy clarinet of Peryn Clement-Evans, led to a fifth variation which epitomised the material of the earlier movements. The closing section finally brought the original theme to the fore, scoring it for bassoon and clarinet, but at the same time continuing the process of variation and development still further with some rapturous string counterpoints drifting above the texture.

In his extensive programme notes the composer observed that a pedal note A was employed throughout the piece; but in practice this was scarcely noticeable, as its employment was so imaginatively disguised. While in Gareth Glyn’s piece I occasionally felt that the composer was hankering after the wider landscapes of a full orchestra, here the impression was of a composer totally at ease with his medium and producing a piece that sat well within the chamber music tradition. Some sections of the score had previously been featured in a work for piano, but these were so well integrated into the whole that if we had not been told we would never have guessed. My only regret was that the strictly functional title Octet might militate against wider recognition of the quality of a work which deserves to establish itself in the repertory. Twenty years ago, the composer gave a title to his quartet (for the same instrumentation as Messiaen’s Quartet for the end of time) as Not the stillness; might I suggest that he could apply his imagination to a suitable epithet for this octet?

Although the auditorium was not full, there was nevertheless a sizeable audience for this lunchtime recital and from the stalls the balance and blend of the ensemble could be thoroughly appreciated. The hall’s acoustic – sometimes so troublesome with large forces – seemed perfect for the playing here, with plenty of resonance adding an attractive halo to the sound. The efforts of Peryn Clement-Evans and his ensemble deserve not only praise for their enterprise, but also for the quality of their performances.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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