Scharoun Ensemble Berlin

Beethoven: Septett Op. 20; Sextett Op. 71

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For few other works of Beethoven did the 19th and 20th centuries deliver such divergent evaluations as for the Septet, Op. 20, which was widely imitated almost as soon as Beethoven published it in 1800 and remained hugely popular for decades. It's easy to see why it fell out of favor: it's one of Beethoven's few backward-looking works, and even in its somewhat serious Adagio cantabile it's not very "Beethovenian." But it's worth trying to understand what audiences of Beethoven's time heard in the work, and this fine recording by the Scharoun Ensemble Berlin. The group is named for the designer of the wan but acoustically fine Philharmonie concert hall. Drawing on certain details of the work's original title, the group locates the work's interest not in its tick-tock melodies but in how "the function and position of individual instruments within a movement shift and change." They take the key step of reining in the vibrato from the strings, allowing the formation of a precisely layered sound that turns the music into a courtly, slightly sly dance of paired entrances and dialogues. Unlike in other recordings, the septet here seems of a piece with the comic side of the young Beethoven's musical personality. The Sextet for winds in E flat major, Op. 71, composed around 1796 despite its high opus number, has a similar sound and is cleanly played but doesn't quite take wing, partly because of the addition of a double bass to the wind sextet in the performance. Doubtless this might have been done in the late 18th century, but the case for doing so is not persuasively made here. The Tudor label's SACD sound is superbly clear on any equipment, and ordinary mortals can only dream of how it sounds on high-end gear.

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