BRAHMS String Sextets Nos. 11 and 21. String Quintets Nos. 12 and 22 • Alexander Str Qrt; 1,2Toby Appel (va); 1David Requiro (vc) • FOGHORN 2012 (2 CDs: 130:33)
Completed in 1860, theRead more first of Brahms’s two sextets is an effusive outpouring of youthful ardor that belies the age and life-experience of the 27-year-old composer who wrote it. By 1860, Brahms had already lived through the harrowing events of Schumann’s attempted suicide, commitment to a mental institution, and premature death, not to mention the effects of those events on Clara and her children. But Brahms was also in love with Clara, or at least with some idealized love surrogate for Clara, and this B?-Major Sextet seems to sing a song of blissful, sun-filled days, until the arrival of the second movement, that is—a set of variations in D Minor on a theme strongly redolent of the Gypsy melos Brahms picked up during his tour with Hungarian violinist Ede Reményi and which would infuse much of his music for the rest of his life.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this Sextet is the clarity of the textures and lines Brahms maintains throughout the work, in spite of the addition of two more instruments to the ensemble and the thickness of the scoring. It’s a transparency that can be heard with penetrating purity in this performance by the Alexander Quartet in which Tony Appel takes the first viola part, and David Requiro takes the second cello part.
Four years later, Brahms turned his attention to a second sextet, this time in G Major, completing it in 1865. Throughout its composition, Brahms was involved in the most serious romantic dalliance of his life, one that very nearly led to the marriage altar. The woman was Agathe von Siebold, to whom Brahms had proposed. Then, suddenly, Brahms got cold feet and broke off the engagement. What this has to do with the Sextet is that it contains one of the composer’s rare (perhaps only) use of a musical cryptogram in which bars 162–168 of the first movement contain the notes A-G-A-D-H (B)-E, a reference to Agathe.
The G-Major Sextet is also richly melodic, but tinged perhaps with just a bit of wistful nostalgia and regret; at 32, Brahms is becoming the sorrowful, lonely traveler we know from many of his later works. The minor-key Scherzo, which now comes in second place, and the Poco Adagio which follows it, have a certain portentous gravitas about them, as if Brahms now knows the journey going forward will not be a particularly happy one for him.
Toby Appel and David Requiro switch roles for the G-Major Sextet, with Appel playing second viola and Requiro playing first cello. The effect on the ensemble is a darkening one, which suits the music perfectly. Go-to, long-time favorites in this piece have been the Nash Ensemble on Onyx and the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion, but once again, the Alexander Quartet, joined by Appel and Requiro, makes a most persuasive case for the score with a tonal refulgence, textural translucence, and expressivity of phrasing that are hard to resist.
Much later in Brahms’s output come the two string quintets. The F-Major was written in 1882 at Bad Ischl, the composer’s favorite summer retreat. The normally highly self-critical Brahms was so pleased with the work that he wrote to his publisher, “You have never had such a beautiful work from me,” and in a letter to Clara Schumann, he called it “one of my finest works.” History has not necessarily concurred, if one judges by the number of recordings the piece has received; at around 30, it would seem to be Brahms’s least popular chamber work. Hearing it, one has to wonder why, for it contains some of the composer’s most haimish music, warm, sun-drenched, and filled with the optimism and promise borne by a spring day. Unusual for Brahms’s larger chamber works as well is the fact that the Quintet is in three movements instead of four, with the second movement combining elements of a slow movement and a Scherzo into one.
I first learned the quintets from the 1970s LP recordings by the Guarneri Quartet with Michael Tree, which I reviewed in their digitized transfers in 32:6. The players bring a great deal of warmth and bigheartedness to their readings, but they’re perhaps not quite as technically polished as are the Boston Symphony Chamber Players on a Nonesuch CD, which I’ve long enjoyed. I haven’t heard the Uppsala Chamber Soloists’ recent entry on Daphne, which Lynn Bayley praised highly in 37:1, but of those I am familiar with—and in addition to the above-cited Guarneri and Boston versions, they include the Juilliard Quartet with Walter Trampler and the Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé—I’d have to say that the Alexander Quartet with Tony Appel outshines them all. The readings are closest to the classic Guarneri accounts in their warmth and beauteous sound, but more technically polished, better balanced, and offering more detailed recorded sound.
The same may be said of the G-Major Quintet, op. 111, the work Brahms intended to be his last, but as we know, Fate had other plans for him. The Quintet was composed in 1890, again at Bad Ischl, as the previous Quintet had been. Surprisingly, there’s no sense of leave-taking, nothing autumnal in the character of this music. It’s in fact quite joyful. In certain ways, however, it does sum up the totality of Brahms’s art. It has been called the composer’s most cosmopolitan work, suggesting a diversity of Italian, Viennese, Hungarian, and Slavic influences. The score has an almost serenade-like personality to it, reflecting back on Brahms’s early orchestral serenades.
These are performances to fall in love with and to live with happily ever after.
Well-nigh perfectNovember 6, 2015By Paul Breslin (Evanston, IL)See All My Reviews"I knew the quintets and sextets from the Raphael Ensemble's recordings, which I like very much, but these are even better. Everything you could ask for is here: structural clarity, richness of tone, passion and energy at appropriate moments, without sacrifice of lyrical expression in more inward passages. No element is missing, no element is exaggerated. The recording too is exceptionally fine (most ASQ albums for Foghorn are engineered by Judith Sherman, who did extraordinary work for Nonesuch for many years--try Paul Jacobs' Nonesuch recording of the Debussy preludes to hear what I mean). I bought my copy of this set directly from the ASQ web site, which at the time was offering 20% off if you ordered from Allegro. That deal is no longer available--the asking price is now $27.99. So if you take advantage of the weekend special, you save $6.00. Unless you hate Brahms, you'll be glad you bought this recording."Report Abuse
Brahms chamber music heavenMarch 17, 2014By Joseph Lieber, MD (Great Neck, NY)See All My Reviews"The Alexander with augmented forces show their mettle in beautiful recordings of the Brahms sextets and the string quintets. All come off with beautiful playing, phrasing and intonation. I was especially impressed with the Sextets which are some of my favorite works. The tempi are spot on and the players mesh beautifully together. The string quintets are very well played and recorded as well. Even if you have other recordings of these chamber works, this recording will still offer much enjoyment!!"Report Abuse