The Asheville Chamber Music Series moved its concert this month from its usual home in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to the Diana Wortham Theatre downtown. The artists were drawn from the acclaimed Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) and assembled into a smaller group known as the Camerata RCO chamber ensemble. Having toured famous venues in the eastern US, they made Asheville their last stop. The program showcased their fine clarinetist (Hein Wiedijk) in two major works: Mozart's Clarinet Quintet in A, K. 581 and Schubert's Octet in F, Op. posth. 166, D. 803. The other musicians were Marc Daniel van Biemen, first violin; Annebeth Webb, violin; Jeroen Woudstra, viola; Maartje-Maria den Herder, cello; Rob Dirksen, double bass; Simon van Holen, bassoon; and Fons Verspaandonk, horn.
With the first notes of the Mozart, it was apparent that their playing style is one of restrained elegance. These are musicians who plumb the depths of the softer range of the dynamic spectrum, and I found myself leaning toward them to listen more intently. With the strings playing so softly, it was much easier to hear all the gradations executed by the clarinetist, whose command of his instrument was as impressive as his musicality. First violinist van Biemen played in what I thought was too restrained a manner, and I found myself wanting more volume and expressivity from him – in fact, more of a marked difference between supporting and leading roles. In the second movement Larghetto, clarinetist Wiedijk excelled in tone production, hanging gorgeous tones to fill every sonic space, with the string accompaniment in perfect balance. The third movement Menuetto was taken at a brisk tempo, with the projection of the first violin much better. The final movement, a charming variation set, began with a delightful "strut," which gave way to more fanciful figurations. Given the restrained dynamic level, even these virtuosic moments were understated, smoldering rather than blazing.
After intermission, the ensemble was rearranged to include the additional instruments, with the clarinet placed up front opposite the first violin. Schubert's Octet is a monumental work of 65 minutes performance time which was modeled after Beethoven's Septet, Op. 20. It was commissioned by amateur clarinetist Count Ferdinand von Troyer, a Viennese court official, and first performed at his home in 1824. Isolated movements were published well before the publication of the complete work in 1889. Schubert completed this large work in a mere month, even while enduring a health crisis which confirmed his belief that he didn't have long to live.
The symphonic scale of the work unfolds in six lengthy movements, three of which have pronounced tempo changes. The outer two movements are the most Beethovenesque, with long, brooding passages which sound like portents of things to come. The ensemble excelled in these slower moments, as if delighted to keep the audience in suspense, before racing away at a clip.
Some of the best ensemble playing occurred in movement four, a variation set based on a theme from his own opera Die Freunde von Salamanka of 1815, with outstanding contributions by horn and cello. The contrast of the rousing Scherzo of movement three, characterized as a peasant dance, with the polish of the movement five Menuetto, its older cousin, was beautifully done. As if to play a joke on the performers, Schubert saved some of the most wicked licks for the last movement, and clarinet, violin, and cello sailed through these musical traps with ease. The audience rose in ovation to these outstanding artists.