LABELS: Dabringhaus und Grimm Gold
WORKS: String Sextet in B flat, Op. 18; String Quartet in B flat, Op. 67
PERFORMER: Leipzig Quartet; Hartmut Rohde (viola), Michael Sanderling (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: MDG 307 0969-2
Brahms’s early B flat major Sextet is one of the most warmly beguiling things he ever wrote – a perfect introduction to the chamber music. The imagination never fails, the range of moods and colours is wonderfully wide, and for unflagging melodic invention it’s hard to beat. The B flat Quartet, written 16 years later, is a tougher nut to crack – leaner, more inward-looking, less concerned to charm the ear – but it’s well worth persisting. The first movement is perhaps the nearest Brahms ever came to Haydn in playfulness and wit.
This coupling works well: despite the shared home key, the Sextet and the Quartet inhabit very different worlds. Both performances are compelling and technically first-rate, just a little unyielding at times – in the slow movement of the Quartet perhaps, certainly in the Sextet’s easy-going variation finale. There’s plenty of energy and intelligence, rather less heart. For a version of the Sextet with all three qualities in abundance, try the Isaac Stern-led 1952 mono recording (with Pablo Casals). And for the String Quartet, the Alban Berg Quartet have all the Leipzigers’ precision and focused intensity, but its Brahms is a Classical-Romantic, not just a stern classicist – the composer who adored Schubert as well as venerating Bach. These new recordings are excellent: well-balanced, clear and immediate – easy to imagine you’re right in there with the musicians. Stephen Johnson