Octagon Octet, Works by Beethoven and Schubert, Playhouse, March 24, 2015

This concert was a wonderful reunion of Canadian instrumentalists who have shaped the country’s musical landscape for many a decade.  Since its formation in 1998, the idea behind the octet ensemble, Octagon, was to create a truly ‘all-star’ chamber group.  While there have been difficulties in keeping the ensemble cohesive over the years, it is a cause for celebration that they could engage on this current tour.  With violinist Martin Beaver, the leader of the Tokyo Quartet until its recent dissolution, violinist Mark Fewer, formerly concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony and now a member of the St. Lawrence Quartet, James Campbell, a most celebrated clarinetist for three decades, and Rivka Golani, the very enterprising and accomplished violist who has commissioned over 200 works – to mention only four of its members – it was certainly an exciting prospect to see them play the famed Beethoven Septet and the Schubert Octet.

Though the performances tended more to the quick, alert and disciplined side, I thought the sheer quality of the playing was sufficient to carry the day.  Led by violinist Mark Fewer, the Allegro of the first movement of Beethoven’s Septet was very tight-knit, sometimes quite dramatic, with accents strongly articulated.  Here I felt that the ensemble achieved enviable integration, but found less spring-like joy and frolic than might be. While the Adagio had a nice flow, it was in the next two movements that one noticed differences, strong accents and momentum changing each from relatively gentle expression to a stronger, more truculent one.  The music can likely take this, making it perhaps closer to the spirit of the rustic Haydn.  Both the Scherzo and the Finale carried on this robust style while featuring strong interplay between the voices. Nonetheless, I did think that the ensemble occasionally drove too hard, needing more carefree relaxation and charm, and perhaps more expressive space for the wind lines.  Kenneth MacDonald’s horn contributions were excellent. 

In Schubert’s Octet, this time led by Martin Beaver, the emphasis was often on the serious and dramatic – possibly too much so since it would seem that the opening of the work and the Finale are largely mock-dramatic.  In any case, the first movement’s Allegro was pushed forth with all the motion of the composer’s bustling early symphonic allegros, full of biting sforzandi but noticeably light on lyrical expanse.  Some true Schubertian magic came in the opening part of the Adagio, where clarinetist James Campbell floated out his line with just the right shape and amiability, casting a momentary spell over the proceedings.  And again in the Trio of the Scherzo, where suddenly a wonderful sense of space and still took over.  But the remaining movements returned to the more disciplined and uncompromising posture, ending up somewhat heavy, with irrepressibly-emphatic accents and a fairly short expositional line.  The playing was doubtlessly of the highest order but it did not always convey Schubertian sensibility.  There also needed to be more really soft playing.

I fully enjoyed watching all these instrumentalists at work, even though these performances did not challenge the best.  To do that, there would need to be a greater lyrical flow, a richer sense of intimacy and play, and more of the sheer charm, beauty and glow that make these works so endearing.  But there were some new ideas here, and I certainly can visualize how making these compositions more tightly-knit could yield some rewards.

I also must say that the above performance characteristics are entirely to be expected. The Octagon ensemble currently seems like a very accomplished set of musicians who still have not completely adapted to each other’s ways, or played with each other frequently enough.  While the individual contributions were splendid, a dominating feature was the assertiveness of its key members who, in perhaps exhibiting leadership, often tended to seek structural weight and directive force over expressive charm and nuance.  But there is nothing new about this.  When ‘all-stars’ such as Heifetz, Piatigorsky and friends came together periodically for their celebrated chamber music outings years ago, the group seldom had a relaxed ease in their music making, often opting for drive and high projection instead.  This was quite different from the esteemed Vienna Octet, Melos Ensemble, Berlin Philharmonic Octet, and the Academy of St. Martin’s in the Fields Chamber Ensemble, all of which had the fortunate circumstance of being ‘family’, since their members got together on a daily basis as instrumentalists in the larger orchestras or in related ensembles.  The degree of understanding between these musicians fostered the absolute naturalness and patience of their playing, and that is why their interpretations of the Schubert and Beethoven in particular remain so special.

The Octagon ensemble is a very fine ensemble and it was a pleasure to hear them.  I would hope that their members come together and perform much more frequently in the future.

© Geoffrey Newman 2015