Razumovsky Ensemble at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven

Duet in E flat, WoO32 ‘Mit zwei obligaten Augengläsern’
String Quintet in C, Op.29
Septet in E flat, Op.20

Razumovsky Ensemble [Michael Whight (clarinet), Julie Price (bassoon), John Thurgood (horn), Winfried Rademacher & Natalia Lomeiko (violins), Maxim Rysanov & YuriZhislin (violas), Oleg Kagan (cello) and Neil Tarlton (double bass)]

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 4 March, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Razumovsky EnsembleMixed ensembles focussing on varied chamber repertoire are not uncommonthese days but the underlying conception of the Razumovsky Ensemble, that ofa regular pool of musicians which differs between concerts and can thuscover the extent of the genre, is a pragmatic and worthwhile one.

It was well demonstrated in this recital of early chamber works byBeethoven – an area that, if hardly neglected, is not as familiar as itonce was. That said, the ‘Eyeglass’ Duet (1797) has always been a curiosity:consisting of a sonata-allegro and a minuet, it was thought to be the torso(whether or not unfinished) of a larger work, yet the several examples ofsuch pieces in Beethoven’s output from this period (not least the Opus 49piano sonatas) tend to suggest otherwise. Suffice to add that Oleg Kagan andMaxim Rysanov did justice to the music’s trenchant and often acerbic humour.

Beethoven’s solitary String Quintet (1801) – or at least his only original(as opposed to transcribed) such piece – was most likely composed as afollow-up to his Opus 18 string quartets, but its expansive formal design andexpressive sweep look more intently to the full onset of his middle period. Certainly the Razumovsky musicians had the measure of the opening movement’s unforcedmotion and melodic generosity, though a little more momentum going into thereprise might have been welcome, while the Adagio’s eloquence was as finelyrendered as the scherzo’s rhythmic vitality. As were the finale’s coursingenergy and humorous asides, even if the last degree of élan was wanting(this being the reason for the work’s ‘Storm’ Quintet designation, afterall). Lapses in intonation proved a passing detraction, yet the players’ overall responsiveness to this gem of the late-Classical era was never indoubt.

If this piece has never quite received its due, then the Septet (1799) hasnever quite regained the popularity it enjoyed in the composer’s lifetime.Highly regarded well into the last century (Arturo Toscanini played it thecomplement of making a transcription for orchestra), it has sincefallen victim to the tendency to downplay Beethoven’s pre-1800 output yet,as the present performance confirmed, its expressive range can hardlythought to be at odds with its formal reach. If the outer movements were atrifle matter-of-fact (but not the wonderfully portentous slow marchlaunching the finale), the minuet and scherzo were purposefully contrastedas to their formal archetypes, while the Adagio yielded a pathos pursuedmore obliquely in the variations on a Rhenish folksong that constitute thefourth movement. Above all, the work’s contrasts in texture –such as madepossible the mixed ensemble that found increasing favour in the nineteenthcentury – were ideally brought out, as were those antiphonal exchangesbetween wind and strings in which double bass assumes a genial ‘master ofceremonies’ role, the persuasive climax of another successful Razumovskyevent.

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