Brahms: Sextet in B flat, Op. 18; Sextet in G, Op. 36

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Signum
WORKS: Sextet in B flat, Op. 18; Sextet in G, Op. 36
PERFORMER: Hausmusik London
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 013
It’s tempting to subscribe to the notion that as far as performance on period instruments is concerned, the musical revelations are considerably diminished the further one proceeds into the nineteenth century. Yet this outstanding new release suggests otherwise. Ears accustomed to the creamy sonorities produced by Isaac Stern and colleagues on a much-admired Sony release will no doubt recoil at the prospect of hearing these glorious works divested of their customary richness. But for me, the results are enlightening and bring an unexpected transparency especially in textures which emphasize the middle and lower ranges. The opening of the B flat Sextet is a case in point. On the Stern disc, Yo-Yo Ma’s solo is delivered with wonderful tenderness, and perhaps with an even greater degree of expressivity than from Richard Lester on the present release. Yet the overall effect is less convincing since the accompanying quaver passage-work appears rather turgid in comparison with Hausmusik’s leaner sound.

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One might of course insist that the modern instruments used by Stern and co afford the opportunity for greater power in climactic passages and a much wider range of dynamics. But this argument is swept away when one hears the exhilarating rustic sounds conjured up by Hausmusik in the central section of the G major Scherzo, or the magical use of non-vibrato in the Musette variation in the second movement of the B flat. In matters of tempo and the use of rubato, Stern’s group is obviously more expansive and indulgent, but Hausmusik by no means sacrifice flexibility and fluidity, and their interpretations have a warmth that is singularly lacking in the rival period instrument version from L’Archibudelli (also on Sony). By all accounts then this release must be regarded as a benchmark even for devotees of modern instrument performances. Erik Levi