By Miranda Wilson | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Metamorphosen is the debut recording of the Oculi Ensemble, a group of mostly British string players drawn variously from the Badke, Doric, Piatti, Navarra, Albion, and Idomeneo quartets. The size of the ensemble permits the performance of larger-scale chamber works by Richard Strauss, some of which will be unfamiliar to many listeners.
The opening track, the string sextet Prelude to Capriccio, drops us right into the Oculi’s gorgeous, ultra-romantic sound blend. A Quartettsatz fragment provides a tantalizing, 42-measure glimpse at a string quartet that never materialized. Strauss’ very early String Quartet, Op. 2—written at the ripe old age of 16—shows an unexpectedly Haydn-esque side to the composer, while a picturesque Ständchen from the same era recalls Mendelssohn’s Lieder ohne Worte.
The dramatic centerpiece of this project is, of course, the arrangement for string septet of Strauss’ Metamorphosen by Rudolf Léopold. It seems extraordinary that a piece originally for 23 players could work so well with just seven. The Oculi Ensemble pulls it off magnificently, playing with broad, generous bow strokes, impeccable ensemble, and near-operatic levels of vibrato for this cathartic, crepuscular piece. Their luxuriant style seems almost to belong to another time, perhaps the “golden age” of the Busch and Budapest Quartets. It’s to be hoped that this disc will be the first of many projects.
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