Josef Eybler (1765–1846) is probably the most famous composer not to have completed Mozart’s Requiem, despite trying. Little recognised today, he enjoyed great success in 18th-century Vienna where he was best known for his choral music. Oddly, it was through Disney that I first heard his music in the film Born to Sing (1962), also known as Almost Angels, based on life in the Vienna Boys’ Choir. It starred the Australian actor Sean Scully as a teenager. The choir sang Eybler’s Omnes de Saba venient. I was hooked.

Sounds of Vienna ARCO

Sounds of Vienna, The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, Sydney, 2022. Photo © Robert Catto

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra pairs the String Quintet in D Major, Op. 25, of Eybler (date unknown) with Schubert’s Octet in F Major, D803 (1824), in a look at the golden era of 18th-century Viennese chamber music. The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra draws its expert performers from around the world, playing period instruments dating from Simon Oswell’s 1740 Gaspare Lorenzini Italian viola to Anneke Scott’s 2012 horn based on a late 18th/early 19th-century original from Austria. Sound and style are how the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra achieves its tremendously polished defining edge. The tones of the gut strings are distinctive, vagaries of tuning and all. The music is played with due respect to the aesthetics of the era, notably the use of portamento and ornamentation. We know this from the erudite program notes by Neal Peres Da Costa outlining the research methodology and the traditions which have been passed down from the violinists of the time, some of whom lived into the recording era and were able to make rudimentary recordings, which have endured to this day.

Eybler was born near Vienna when it was a hub of music-making. Composers like Michael Haydn, Pleyel, Vanhal and Mozart were busy developing the string ensemble. Eybler, was taught by Albrechstberger, who also taught Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel. Mozart and Eybler became good friends. In 1801, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, appointed Eybler Music Master to the Imperial Family, where he succeeded Salieri as Imperial Kapellmeister in 1824. Mozart asked him to coach the singers for the premiere of Così fan tutte and he even helped nurse Mozart during his final illness. After his death it was Eybler whom Constanze asked to complete the Requiem. After adding some instrumental parts and soprano notes, Eybler was overwhelmed with awe and relinquished the task to Süssmayr.

Impeccable credentials are evident in this five-movement quintet to which Eybler has added his mark by playing with the structure and number of movements, and replacing one viola with the double bass, adding sonority. In the style of a divertimento and perfect for a salon, the music charms but entertains without challenging. Jenna Sherry’s first violin soars in the somewhat staid introductory bars, soon moving to a lively Allegro. The melodies are graceful, and the first violin is undoubtedly the star. Although the writing is democratic, with each instrument given the chance to shine, the lower strings mostly maintain the tactus and provide the anchor. There is plenty of amusing interplay and imitation amongst the parts, with the added spritz of dance rhythms. The first violin has a virtuosic role, which Sherry plays with great distinction, especially in her beautifully silken rendition in the fifth movement Adagio. With entertainment at the heart of this piece, it closes with the Finale: Allegro vivace alive and humorous with playful pizzicato.

The lineage continues in the music of Schubert, who studied under Salieri. Schubert wrote his Octet in F Major, D803 in 1824, aged 27, the year of the 59-year-old Eybler’s appointment as Imperial Kapellmeister to the Austrian court. By this time, Schubert was well known in Vienna’s music and poetry scene, and the power of friendship recurs with the request from Schubert’s friend Ferdinand Troyer, a clarinettist, who commissioned a piece in the style of Beethoven’s very successful Septet. Troyer was also a member of the court of Archduke Rudolph, a clarinetist as well. Schubert also knew that Ignaz Shuppanzigh, a leading violinist was to be the first violin and so the Octet contains many luminous moments which highlight these two instruments.

It’s a challenging piece lasting an hour but Schubert’s writing never lags and the performance is engaging, the quintet of strings embellished with the brassy thrill of the horn, the exuberance of the bassoon and Nicole van Bruggen’s sleek clarinet lines, especially evident in the second movement Adagio when clarinet and violin engage in an elegant dialogue. They reprise their conversation in the fourth movement Andante structured as a theme and variations. The third movement Allegro Vivace is a vibrant dance with jaunty dotted rhythms; the theme of the Andante also has the sense of a dance albeit a more genteel one. Schubert’s Octet digs more deeply into drama and contrasting moods than Eybler’s quintet and the ensemble conveys these sentiments in the final movement with tremolando-driven drama and a fiercely virtuosic face-off between clarinet and first violin, building to a very exuberant ending.

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra delivers the Sounds of Vienna with splendid playing, a unique sound and winning repertoire. Pass the Sachertorte please!

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