The Berkeley Ensemble is an octet: three wind players and a string quintet. This was the third concert of the Radlett Music Club's 75th Anniversary Season, with a varied and interesting programme.
As John Slack (clarinet) explained to the audience, the most ambitious work was Schubert's Octet in F major, D. 803, in the second half, and the two works in the first half were in a sense preparatory to it.
The concert began with Poulenc's Sonata for clarinet and bassoon. of which the first version dates from 1922. The two soloists, John Slack and Andrew Watson, gave a polished and well-balanced performance, with precise rhythms and exact ensemble.
Then came a later work, the Octet by Francais. We all fear that the French horn will dominate other instruments: at the hands, or perhaps one should say the lips, of Paul Cott, excellent balance, accuracy and expression were achieved throughout. The fourth movement, a jolly waltz, was particularly enjoyable.
After the interval, Dan Shilladay (viola) spoke briefly to introduce the Schubert Octet. This work is a little like a triple wind concerto with string quintet accompaniment, and the listener can hardly avoid concentrating on the clarinet, the bassoon and the horn; but the string writing is inventive and intricate.
The themes are passed around among the players, who made the most of Schubert's melodic gifts and harmonic variety. Rightly, the violins, Anna Smith and Sophie Mather, who both have important solos, made sparing use of vibrato. It was fascinating to hear how the double bass (Josef Bisits) sometimes doubled the 'cello (Gemma Wareham) and sometimes had an independent part.
This is a long work - Schubert was an expansive composer. Within most of the six movements, there are important changes of tempo: there are long passages of adagio and andante, and the Berkeley Ensemble showed good judgment in exploiting them and in dealing with pauses.
In the Finale, after dramatic opening chords, there was a special moment when the violins achieved a wonderful pianisssimo. The Octet may not be a very profound work, but it is characteristically tuneful and was brilliantly played.