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Hyperion Records

CDA66276 - Brahms: String Sextets

Recording details: April 1988
St Paul's Church, New Southgate, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Arthur Johnson
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: November 1988
Total duration: 73 minutes 53 seconds


'Glorious performances … [they] can take their place beside any of the great chamber music recordings of the past, and will continue to set standards for years to come' (Gramophone)

'These are superb performances; the recording is vivid and immediate' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'A treasure trove. Glorious music, gloriously played' (Hi-Fi News)

'Matchless accounts of two lyrically gorgeous works full of colour and melody' (Lady)

'74 minutes of ravishing beauty' (

String Sextets
Allegro non troppo  [14'39]
Poco adagio  [9'28]
Poco allegro  [8'32]
Other recommended albums
'Brahms: String Quintets' (CDH55369)
Brahms: String Quintets
Buy by post £5.50 CDH55369  Helios (Hyperion's budget label)  

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
It was in Robert Schumann’s famous publication, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, dated October 1853, that Johannes Brahms was first hailed as a genius. Not for the first time, Schumann’s judgement in assessing the young (Brahms was but twenty at the time) was proven correct. Before this remarkable acclamation the teenage Brahms had suffered the torment of having to earn his way in the world by playing the piano in various disreputable establishments in his native Hamburg. Such contact with the seamier side of life in the great port can only have had a disturbing effect on one so young and sensitive. North Germans are in any event not known for the exuberance of their spirits, whatever fine qualities they otherwise possess, and the experiences that befell the young Brahms served only to depress his view of life and human nature.

However, as boy turned into man, so hack pianist turned into virtuoso performer, giving concerts with great violinists such as Reményi and Joachim. It was the latter who introduced the young musical giant to Liszt and Schumann, thus materially assisting his recognition as an artist of importance. In 1860 Brahms signed a manifesto opposing the ‘new’ music of Liszt and Wagner, thereafter being regarded as the antipole of the Wagnerian ‘school’ in German music. In 1862, as Beethoven had done seventy years earlier, Brahms settled in Vienna where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

Although by nature a romantic, Brahms did not find opera or programme music congenial to his muse. It was the Classical tradition which exerted the strongest influence on his musical expression and formed his personal style. His stand against modernism was, however, not the result of obstinacy but of caution. He saw the headlong drive into the future as a pursuit that could easily get out of control without the restraint and wisdom that an assiduous study of the music of the past great masters would bring. Brahms held that such a study would serve both to tame the fevered imagination of the times, and enable techniques to be acquired that would allow of more considered and deliberate organization. This was for him the foundation of his creative endeavour; at once his strength and weakness. It imbued his work with great formal integrity, but denied him those delightful byways of the imagination which inform so many of Schumann’s happiest inspirations. Brahms died just three years before the beginning of a century which, it might be said, amply justified the great man’s fears that musical chaos would result from the headlong pursuit of the new for its own sake.

In the field of chamber music Brahms wrote several masterpieces, culminating in the noble Clarinet Quintet. His string quartets were less successful; in fact only three of five times that number which he wrote were allowed to survive by the deeply self-critical composer. Whilst the richness of his piano textures does less than justice to the other instruments used in most of his chamber music, Brahms’s feeling for rich sonorities motivated the two string sextets. Not often heard in the concert hall because of the dominance there of the string quartet, the larger ensemble has much to offer in the luxuriance of its textures.

Brahms was twenty-seven by the time he came to write the First Sextet, an age by which his musical discretion was well able to resist the temptation to score too abundantly for the medium. His delight in composition can be understood from the outset as he explores the unusual sonorities at his disposal. His delight was perhaps heightened by his knowledge that composers of the eighteenth century preferred such larger ensembles for their divertimenti and other entertainment music. Brahms was increasingly interested in the use of ‘across the bar’ phrases of irregular length and he uses them here with delightful and telling effect. The beginning of the Sextet shows Brahms at his most adaptable since he altered it, on the advice of Joachim, in order to postpone the modulation to D flat until after the tonic key had been established. The first movement is in sonata form with an exposition that ends with the suggestion of a Viennese waltz which, at a slower tempo, draws the movement to a close.

The following Andante is a set of variations—another ancient form much loved by Brahms and of which he was a true master. The music is wonderfully imagined for the forces available and carefully avoids textures that could be mistaken for those of the string quartet. The first variation employs the time-honoured device of increasing the sense of movement by subdivisions of the music’s pulse.

The Scherzo is both vigorous and pithy, characteristics which are unusually continued in the trio section. Its similarity to the trio of the Scherzo in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony has not escaped comment by critics.

The final Rondo owes not a little to Schubert and was criticized by Joachim for not being forceful enough in its concluding bars. He also, not without some justice, wished that Brahms had been able to achieve greater contrast between the first and second subjects. Nevertheless it concludes a fine work, not to be dismissed lightly, and certainly not as disdainfully as did Brahms himself in a letter to Clara Schumann which accompanied the manuscript of the first three movements. In it he entreated her to ‘burn the trash’ in order not to have the bother of returning it.

Of the Second Sextet Sir Donald Tovey wrote that it was ‘the most ethereal of Brahms’s larger works’. Beginning with a theme built on rising fifths, the first movement, in sonata form, illustrates Brahms’s mastery of the art of counterpoint. The development section is an effortless demonstration of this art, and one can but listen and admire both the technical ingenuity and the poetic inspiration which bring this lovely music to life. The music itself contains a motif based on the name Agathe—that is, of course, without the ‘unmusical’ letter T. The letter H in German refers to the note B in English, thus the succession of notes AGAHE enshrines the first name of Agathe von Siebold, the one and only young lady to whom Brahms was ever betrothed, though destined never to marry. Following the appearance of Agathe, the movement ends with a coda memorable for a reprise of the first subject containing a most beautiful modulatory passage.

The succeeding G minor Scherzo wavers between melancholy and gentle playfulness with a well-contrasted middle section, ‘Presto giocoso’, incorporating a thumping Ländler rhythm. The Adagio is in E minor and once more finds Brahms using his beloved variation technique to great effect. A slow, sad melody, supported by distinctive chromatic harmonies, is followed by a succession of varied renditions of the thematic material whose melodic connections are less obvious than are the rhythmic and cadential ones.

The last movement sustains Brahms’s sunny mood and the music has an unhurried gait, despite the fugal writing in the development section. The main theme is first marked ‘Tranquillo’ and, later, ‘Semplice’, and it moves effortlessly in triple time. The return of the fugue ensures a rousing conclusion to one of Brahms’s most happy inspirations.

Peter Lamb © 2000

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