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

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: String Sextet in B flat, Op. 18; String Sextet in G, Op. 36
PERFORMER: Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9151 DDD
Ardent, robust and nobly wrought versions of the two Brahms Sextets, from the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble. This is palmy, luxuriant playing, recorded in an acoustic which adds much to one’s enjoyment of these performances. However vibrant the ambience and apposite the production, these accounts hold their own in purely musical terms alongside the best available, comparing very favourably with the recent Sony Classical release featuring Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma et al.

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The Sextet Op. 18 appeared in 1862; a more genial and celebratory work than its companion, it nonetheless demands minute attention to detail to enable inner lines to register as Brahms intended. So well attuned are the Academy players to the needs of the work that nothing is left to chance, in a reading of compelling grandeur. Especially memorable is the six-variation Andante, whose measured, processional tread has an inevitability that occasionally eludes Stern and friends. A bucolic Scherzo and its puckishly Beethovenian trio gives way to the finale which Joseph Joachim felt lacking in weight and rhetoric. How very different his view might have been had he heard this playing!

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Though not published until 1866, the G major Sextet reflects the mixed emotions which followed Brahms’s abortive engagement to Agathe von Siebold (whose christian name is enshrined in the opening movement) in 1859. This is a masterful performance, big-boned and eloquent, yet never losing that sense of quiet dignity so quintessentially Brahmsian. Whatever Joachim’s misgivings over the finale of Op. 18, the sweep and fire of this closing movement typify the qualities of a wholesome musical experience of the kind all too casually dismissed these days. Michael Jameson