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Grand Septet in B Flat Major

Franz Berwald - Grand Septet in B flat
For clarinet, Bassoon, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello and Double Bass

Berwald’s music has strong classical instincts and the many unpredictable touches one encounters in his finest music reflect an exploratory mind, wide in its range of sympathies and degree of sophistication. His early works are far from negligible in quality or quantity though not all of them have come down to us. His first essay in the medium was written in 1817 and was first performed with a concerto for two violins and orchestra, in which Franz and his younger brother August were the soloists, in January 1818. Its modulatory audacities were the subject of critical concern at the time (there were other instances in the G minor quartet and the series of piano pieces that he himself published in the form of a regular Musical Journal in 1818-20). No autograph of the 1817 Septet survives and how far the present work incorporates material from it or is a revision is entirely a matter for conjecture. However when the present Septet was first given in December 1828, it was advertised as ‘new’, and briefly, in writing about his early music in 1831 in a letter to his sisters, speaks of the septet inclines me to think that it may well be a revision.

Be this as it may, the most immediately striking feature of the work is its formal novelty. It enclosed the scherzo within the body of the slow movement, a feature of mature work like the Sinfonie singulière and the E flat string quartet (1849). This has few precedents though Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach adopted the practice in his C minor clavier concerto (Wq.43, No.4). In its language it is firmly in the tradition of Spohr and Kreutzer, the thematic material is urbanely attractive, inventively treated and idiomatically laid out. In the finale there are occasional glimpses of the later Berwald. The first movement is prefaced by a brief introduction, the slow movement embodies the scherzo, and the highly polished finale shows the satisfaction Berwald expressed with his 1828 Septet to be far from ill-placed.

Robert Layton

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