After a stunning Sibelius cycle with Simon Rattle at the Barbican earlier in the week, this splinter group from the Berlin Philharmonic crossed the Thames to give a concert of delightful Scandinavian gems alongside a Schubert masterwork.

Berliner Philharmoniker Octet © Monika Ritterhaus
Berliner Philharmoniker Octet
© Monika Ritterhaus

Carl Nielsen’s music, set alongside the Sibelius that was still ringing in our ears, approaches its musical goals from a more human standpoint. Whereas with Sibelius we are faced with the struggle to overcome titanic forces, Nielsen approaches the struggles of life with dramatic gusto and humour. Not that many struggles are evident in the Serenata in vano for clarinet, horn, bassoon, cello and double bass, which is a seven minute character piece that aims to seduce and amuse. The Berlin Phil members certainly ‘got’ the mock romantic tone of the piece and the five players were both individually characterful and fully integrated. The final March was suitably breezy and ‘devil may care’ after the ‘in vain’ attempts at serenading an invisible lady.

Next up was the grandfather of all Scandinavian composers, Franz Berwald, and his sparkling early Grand Septet in B flat of 1828. Berwald is one of those composers who have suffered from the prejudice of musicians and programmers alike. He is one of the most important composers of the first half of the 19th century and should be more widely heard in concert halls. He excelled in symphonic forms and chamber music, but there are also a number of excellent operas and a body of fine choral music. All credit to the Berlin players for this performance, which proved to be clear headed and refreshing. The quirkiness in the harmonies, melodies, orchestration and structure, even though not yet fully developed into his mature style, gave the piece a charm and sharpness that shone through in this performance. The particularly virtuoso violin part (Berwald was a violinist) was dashingly played by Daishin Kashimoto and in the usual scherzo that is in place as the middle section of the slow movement, the wind players were nimble and characterful. In the rousing finale all the players were clearly enjoying the outgoing, life enhancing nature of the music.

It is very unlikely that Berwald would have known of Schubert’s Octet in F major written four years earlier. Like many of Schubert's larger scale works that either languished unperformed or weren’t published after an initial outing, the Octet was lost to the world until it was finally published in 1889. Set beside the Berwald, the Octet’s ambition seemed to be both hugely impressive and, even slightly indulgent. This is the one Schubert works that puts Schumann’s epithet “heavenly length” to the test. Despite the excess of ravishing melodies, harmonic twists and brilliant orchestration, this remains a difficult work to sit and listen to for an hour.

Not that the Berlin Phil players were in any way responsible for making the work seem overlong; their performance was as good as it gets. So much so that it is hard to pick out any of the individual players for praise here as they were all so technically brilliant and in tune with each other that it was as if they were one. Despite this assertion, I should mention the exquisitely rounded and discreet playing of the horn player, Stefan Dohr, whose strong musical presence seemed to be the heart of this suberb performance that was deservedly met with a standing ovation.

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