Just do not take these Coffee Concerts for granted. This one on Sunday may well prove a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the eight performing players – let alone for we in the audience of just over 200. The chance to hear Schubert’s Octet anywhere in live performance comes extremely rarely. Opportunities outside London are even scarcer.
Octets of two violins, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, bassoon and horn do not have enough music with which to earn a living, so such line-up has to be specially assembled. The Dome and Strings Attached both wanted to present this box of musical wonders, so London’s Royal College of Music named four of their Soloists and asked the string quartet of lead violinist Alessandro Ruisi, who is still an undergraduate at the College, to join forces.
Needless to say, their full rehearsal at the College last week was their first playing of it in ensemble, Sunday their first public performance, and moreover, as confirmed by Alessandro’s cellist brother Max, they don’t know if they’ll ever play it again. Thus differs our musical world from that of 1824 Vienna.
The commission by a clarinettist Count in the household of a famous musical patronising Archduke (Rudolf, of Beethovenian fame) produced this work which is consequently the least performed among Schubert’s closing major output of his heartbreakingly short life. Modelled on the correspondingly young Beethoven’s Septet, which topped the Viennese pops both in hall, chamber and street, this Octet not only overshadows that Septet, it beats into a cocked hat Schubert’s own now embarrassingly popular Trout Quintet.
Here is another Schubert work of ‘heavenly length’, to quote Schumann, and it followed the Ruisi Quartet’s strikingly immediate, committed, rounded and direct reading, before the interval, of Haydn’s C major member of his pivotal six Opus 20 ‘Sun’ Quartets. With music making of such impact and quality, this was no late breakfast of music at 11am. It was already a feast.
The audience was seated only three quarters in the round because the octet members needed to be in U-shape. At their backs, consequently, was much empty, unpopulated Corn Exchange space which enhanced the acoustical resonance of both the Haydn and the Schubert, and created a romantic aural setting for Finlay Bain’s French horn.
Schubert inevitably gives every instrument its chance to sing but he has twin lead vocalists in the first violin and the clarinet. And in Elaine Ruby, with a cascade of curly light brown hair, we glimpsed maybe a future star of the instrument, conveying all Schubert’s loving clarinet language and rattling into moments of bravura challenges which lend this work many of its fizzing moments.
My seat was only a stride away from my being able to reach out and touch the back of the chairs of Ruby and of bassoonist Sophie Robertshaw. To be in the same room as this music, never mind this close to its performers and looking over their shoulders at their scores, is the quivering excitement and privileged opportunity open to everyone attending these Coffee Concerts of chamber music. All seats are unreserved.
Between them, Ruby and Robertshawe have college access-scheme experience with four London Orchestras while Bain has played already with the LSO and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. All three wind players are English.
The young Ruisi are on a scholarship study of two years with the Maggini Quartet in Wellington. The brothers Ruisi are half-Italian, second fiddle Guy Button, who spoke an audience introduction to the Haydn, is English, and violist Anisa Arslanagic, the quartet’s female member, is half Bosnian.
There are six movements in the Octet. Just to be there listening to the first, in its flesh, I am certain had its own intense emotional experience for each listener. The feeling conveyed by the ensemble in the slow second movement was all pervasive with all eight musicians marvellously on the same page. In the next, Spanish double-bass player Rodrigo Moro Martin, ex-Menuhin School and already a concerto soloist, joined exuberant forces with cellist Max Ruisi in the all-dancing Scherzo.
Then came variations on one of Schubert’s own songs. Next, in the Minuet, the trio gives its theme to the bassoon. It’s amusing, and Robertshawe’s voicing drew irresistible smiles across the faces of Moro Martin and Bain.
The substantial finale, was one that no one present wanted to end. Chris Darwin’s enriching programme notes see grief in its slow introduction. Schubert was using the same device as Beethoven in his Septet, to throw into the relief the merriment coming next. But Darwin’s thoughts remind us that, if Beethoven was composing during the onset of permanent deafness, it was not the termination of his world in quite the same way as Schubert’s syphilis was about to extinguish his.
The next Coffee Concert brings more Schubert in unusual and to-be-relished instrumental combination: another late work, his Bb Piano Trio − along with those by Haydn (in D Hob XV24), Beethoven (C minor of Opus 1) and Schubert (Bb). The ensemble appearing on February 23 (11am) is the Trio Isimisz.
The series concludes on March 16 (11am) with the Szymanowsky String Quartet in Haydn (Opus 33 No 1), Szymnanowski (Opus 56 No 2) and Dvorak (Opus 106 No 13).