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Scharoun Ensemble Berlin plays Schubert with polish at Library of Congress

Schubert’s “Octet,” D. 803, is a piece that one does not hear live all that often. It is written for an unusual instrumentation — five strings, horn, bassoon and clarinet — for which few other composers have composed. The Scharoun Ensemble Berlin, composed of musicians from the Berlin Philharmonic, is in the midst of a U.S. tour, and they performed the “Octet” at a concert on Saturday afternoon at the Library of Congress.

This piece is the group’s signature work, performed at its public debut in 1983, and its selection of eight instruments determined the group’s core membership. Schubert gave us about an hour of music in the “Octet,” with two complete slow movements and two dance movements with trios, enough music to justify getting such an unusual ensemble together.

The musicians savored the many textures found in it, playing with impeccable intonation and technical polish, from the tense introduction to its dramatic finish. First violin and clarinet delicately wove their intertwined lines together in the second movement, and the horn playing was generally superb, with just the right amount of sound. (A couple of clams in the first movement proved a surprising exception.)

To have another work for the same forces required an arrangement, by Ulf-Guido Schäfer, of Dvorak’s “Czech Suite,” originally composed for chamber orchestra. It worked beautifully as an octet, from its amiable first movement, with a walking motif oscillating in the bass parts, through its series of Czech dances, and ending with a zesty furiant.

When the second violinist did not return to the stage for the final curtain call, it was a good guess that Beethoven’s septet was the encore, and that work’s delightful minuet closed out the afternoon in a refined way.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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