The Art of the Octet

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The New York Sun

In the field of composition, trios and quintets are fairly common. Quartets are very much so. And duos, sextets, and so on are rather less so. Last week, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center kicked off its season with a program of octets. The most famous of all, of course, is the Mendelssohn — produced when the composer was 16. Now there was a gifted adolescent.

The Mendelssohn was not on CMS’s program. But other interesting material was, including two octets by great 20th-century Russians: Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Both of these works were written in the first half of the 1920s. Stravinsky’s is for woodwinds and brass; Shostakovich’s is for strings alone.

It’s nice that woodwinds and brass have an octet to themselves — strings so often hog the glory.

Personnel for the Stravinsky Octet are a flute, a clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets, and two trombones. The bassoon is a striking-looking instrument, and it was extra-striking to see two of them side by side. Usually, people forget about the bassoon until someone plays “Peter and the Wolf.”

Stravinsky’s piece is a little nutty, a little cheeky, a little circus-like. You ask, “Is it serious? Is it parodic? What’s he driving at?” Not to be forgotten is that the piece is fun — and fun is an element of music that is often underrated.

The CMS gang played the octet with skill and character, and David Shifrin merits particular mention: The number of sounds that come out of his clarinet is astounding.

Shostakovich’s octet — titled “Prelude and Scherzo” — is for four violins, two violas, and two cellos. One of the CMS violinists was Joseph Silverstein, born in 1932; the violinist in the first chair was Adam Barnett-Hart, who looks like he was born about yesterday. That’s one of the nice things about music-making: collaboration across generations.

The CMS performance was well calibrated, with the group breaking loose only when Shostakovich does — that is key. And although some players made beautiful sounds — Mr. Barnett-Hart, most obviously — beauty of sound is not necessarily the point in this music. Character is. And, like the Stravinsky ensemble, the Shostakovich people supplied that.

Also, they ended accurately, which never hurts. It left a good feeling going into intermission.

When the concert resumed, a mixed group — that is, strings, woodwinds, and brass — played Schubert’s Octet in F major, D. 803. This is a both genial and mighty work — an hour long. Schumann famously spoke of the “heavenly length” of Schubert’s Great C-major Symphony. The octet certainly has length, whether it is heavenly or not (and that there is heavenly music here is not to be denied).

The CMS eight sometimes played together, sometimes not. Sometimes the music had proper backbone and forward momentum; at other times it was allowed to sleep, or to doze off a bit.

Mr. Silverstein, sitting in the first chair, often thought better than he played. (You will appreciate the distinction.) A special moment came in the fourth movement, Andante, when the violinist smiled along with the composer. That is, his playing had the desired smile.

The French hornist, Radovan Vlatkovic, was confident and able. He had a nasty flub — but he got right back on the horse, as a hornist must. No brooding or fretting is allowed.

And it was a treat to hear Mr. Shifrin play, as it usually is. In the Adagio, he put on a clinic of phrasing. He did not make his creamiest, most beautiful sound — but the sound he chose was effective. And, in the following movement — Allegro vivace — he injected just a little bit of jazz. Of course, Schubert does too (in a way).

And this was perhaps appropriate, given that we were in the Rose Theater, which is part of the Home of Jazz at Lincoln Center (an awkward name for the facility on Columbus Circle).

Do you remember what Dr. Johnson said about “Paradise Lost”? “None ever wished it longer than it is.” Schubert’s octet is a masterpiece, no doubt — but I have a feeling that none ever wished it longer than it is.

The New York Sun

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