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Slavic Soul - Oberton String Octet

Slavic Soul - Oberton String Octet

Ars Produktion  ARS 38 305

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Chamber


Dmitri Shostakovich: Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11
Nikolay Afanasyev: Double Quartet in D Major, "Housewarming"
Reinhold Glière: String Octet in D Major, Op. 5

Oberton String Octet

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Review by Adrian Quanjer - March 25, 2020

With so much music already on record it is almost impossible to bring something new and of sufficient quality to attract people's attention. That said, the Austrian based Oberton String Octet seem to have found a niche in a crowded market. No world premieres, but nonetheless works most of us are unfamiliar with. And what’s more: no ‘forgotten masterworks’ for the sake of making a ‘discovery’ either. Unfortunately, they are not the only ones sniffing out the archives for ‘new’ material.

Perhaps best known are Dimitri Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, op. 11. Several, mostly older recordings exist. And there is a recent 2019 RBCD account on the Avi Music label, which, interestingly enough, also has the hardly recorded Glière String Octet Op. 5l. My search for recordings of Afanasyev’s Double Quartet revealed that another String Octet have gotten the same idea. This group, ‘ROctet’, consisting of 8 members of the Dutch Radio Symphony Orchestra, recorded it last year for Challenge Classics. An album released in January 2020 as a ‘world premiere recording’ (also containing the two Shostakovich pieces!).

One may have its doubts about this claim as the liner notes of the present release say that Oberton recorded it for the first time (no label mentioned) in early 2019, taken from a live performance (Jeunesse Kammermusikreihe, Ankerbrotfabrik Wien) in September 2018. I won’t take issue with either statement. It does prove, however, how difficult it is to add something new to the catalogue. However, the good news is that in the realm of high-resolution Oberton has the field for itself. All the more reason to give this debut SACD a serious listen.

As a rule of thumb, one might say: If the music is good, the players are good and the recording as well, what can go wrong?

In reversed order: ARS Produktion is widely known for its consistently high quality. And although this recording was made in Graz, Austria, by a colleague of the usual ARS-team, it still has some of the typical ARS characteristics, including a prominent surround, which, I take it, is liked by many of their clientele.

So, what about the musicians? They come from Latvia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Italy, Russia, Hungary (2) and Austria, and are all in the age group of around 25. The next question then is: How does a mix of young international players get to group together? Reading their bio’s, it looks as though the common denominator is: Having studied or still studying in Graz and taking a similar view to serve the music. A solid fundament for playing seamlessly together, one might say. And so it is. Common inspiration, common result.

Finally, and certainly not the least important question: How good are the compositions? Shostakovich needs no further comment. As I see it, he has always something to say, whatever thoughts he trusted onto paper. I’m convinced that Shosta-lovers will be glad to add these two miniatures to their Hi-res collection. Nicolai Afanasyev’s octet is a different and quite intriguing matter. Initially being a violinist of renown in Tsarist Russia, he turned to composing later in his career. Apart from a few operas, which never made it, he composed no less than six symphonies, nine violin concerti and lots of chamber music of which, until today, and as far as I know, only one of the twelve-string quartets made it on record. Bad sign? Not so, if judged by listening to his ‘Novoselye or Housewarming’ double quartet in d major. It is well-structured and full of melodious, folk-based tunes. How well developed the remainder of his oeuvre is, remains to be seen (or rather: heard). On the subject of ‘bringing something new to the catalogue’, a thorough investigation seems worthwhile and possibly rewarding. Reinhold Glière is known for some major works like his concerti for Harp, Coloratura Soprano, Horn and Cello, as well as his third Symphony. On the strength of his String Octet, here, too, seems to be a large vault of chamber music asking to be discovered.

For an overall judgement, some critics might say that these young musicians are short on professional experience. I, for one, see this as a blessing. How often do we have to conclude that experience equals ‘routine’? Here we have the freshness and eagerness of youngsters, devoting all their creative energy to what matters most to them: Music-making to the best of their ability, and for the benefit of us all. My listening sessions left me with so much pleasure and with so much musical faith for the future, not least as a healthy dose of medicine to withstand a world where Beat&Noise seem to dominate youth with more decibels than is good for the ears. I do hope Oberton will soon be back with more of the same.

Blangy-le-Château, Normandy, France.

Copyright © 2020 Adrian Quanjer and HRAudio.net

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Review by Mark Werlin - March 25, 2020

In this debut SACD by the Oberton (German for "overtone") String Octet, a rediscovered chamber work from the nearly forgotten 19th-century composer Nicolay Afanasyev is framed by early-career compositions for two quartets by Dmitri Shostakovich and Reinhold Glière.

The number of published string octets is much smaller than works for string quartet and other chamber instrumental configurations. In the decades following Spohr's double quartets (1823-1832) and Mendelssohn's still-popular Op. 20 octet (1825), the field grows sparse. Niels Gade's string octet appeared in 1848, and Woldemar Bargiel's Op. 15 shortly thereafter. Afanasyev's octet premiered in St. Petersburg, a generation later, in 1886.

Although in the 20th and 21st centuries the string octet form has seen a revival, evidenced in works by Berio, Bruch, Milhaud, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Kaija Saariaho, and Peter Sculthorpe, perhaps because of the special character of a string quartet's instrumental and temperamental balance, composers have less frequently written for an ensemble of two quartets. This outstanding new recording goes a long way towards reintroducing a rarely heard form to the wider classical music audience.

Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11, a student work composed in 1925 by Dmitri Shostakovich, has in recent years been rediscovered, with several new releases in catalogue. The piece opens with an explosive opening chord that suddenly dies away; a tentative dialogue between the violin and cello follows, elegiac legato lines sensitively read by the Octet's founder, first violinist Jevgēnijs Čepoveckis and first cellist Floris Fortin. Though the two pieces fall short of the calibre of his string quartets, their mordant tone and harmonic density provide a rough sketch of the works to come.

Nicolay Afanasyev's Double Quartet in D major "Housewarming", was brought out of obscurity by the Oberton String Octet in concert performances beginning in 2017, and is the centerpiece of this sole SACD release of the work. From our modern perspective, the Romantic era of Russian classical music may appear to be dominated by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Borodin, but lesser -known composers such as Afanasyev are being rediscovered and newly appreciated through the diligent scholarship of musicians seeking to expand the range of the performance repertoire.

"Housewarming" is very much of its time and place. For context: it is a late-career opus by Afanasyev that predates by four years Tchaikovsky's great String Sextet Op. 70 "Souvenir de Florence". It is a work deeply rooted in the musical language of the foregoing generation and comfortably situated in 19th century Romantic idiom. Following a celebratory opening allegro, the second movement, a lively scherzo, showcases the ensemble's precise intonation, disciplined dynamics and coherence of line. It is in the third, adagio, movement, that composer Afanasyev explores in greater depth the melancholy tendency of the Slavic soul. The minor key cantabile melody is conveyed without maudlin sentimentality, but with appropriate gravity. A solo in the middle of the movement by cellist Floris Fortin is poignantly expressive of the "Slavic soul."

The son of German émigrés, composer Reinhold Glière was born and raised in Kiev, at the time a multi-ethnic center of commerce under Russian imperial governance. Glière went to Moscow to do his conservatory studies, and there his precocious talent flourished; he remained active in Russian musical culture for the remainder of his long life. The opening statement of his early Octet, a Slavic melody played in unison by cello and violin, sets the tone for the piece as a whole: a thoroughly accomplished four-movement work that threads folk themes into a symphonic tapestry. The playing throughout is energetic and the ensemble disciplined and coherent. Credit to first violinist Čepoveckis for bringing out the Slavic character of the melodic themes and maintaining clear lines of development in the denser orchestrated passages. The work deserves greater exposure than the two recordings currently in the catalogue. A fine performance such as this was long overdue.

The Oberton String Octet consists of young string players from Latvia, Ukraine, Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and Austria. Its goal of outreach to new audiences outside the confines of the concert hall, and its ambitious project "Homeland Melodies" should raise awareness and appreciation of the beauty and value of songs and melodies from a wide range of global cultures. It is to be hoped that the example of talented young women and men from different European nations joining together in a creative collaboration can help to counter recent trends of national insularity and division.

Producer Annette Schumacher furthers the ongoing project of Ars Produktion by bringing another talented young ensemble and rediscovered repertoire to the attention of classical music listeners, in fine audio quality.

Copyright © 2020 Mark Werlin and HRAudio.net

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