String Sextets Nos 1 & 2 by Brahms performed by the Cypress Quartet with Barry Shiffman and Zuill Bailey

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WORKS: String Sextets Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Cypress Quartet; Barry Shiffman (viola), Zuill Bailey (cello)


San Francisco’s Cypress Quartet gave their final concert last June after 20 years together. This, their valedictory recording, was made two months beforehand, live in front of a studio audience. They chose to go out on disc not with a quartet programme but with the two Brahms Sextets, joined by violist Barry Shiffman and cellist Zuill Bailey – perhaps a surprising decision; still, the geniality, fleeting melancholy and sense of nostalgia inherent in these works certainly make them apt for a farewell.

The players have the balance well worked out – even with the extra weight in the lower sonorities, the music sounds clear and rarely bottom-heavy, which is some achievement. The first movement of the B flat major Sextet, Op. 18, has a nice sense of sweep, and the extreme glassiness of the music-box variation in the slow movement comes as a pleasing surprise. But the first violin throws in too many murky shifts between notes, and there’s a high, fortissimo moment at the first movement’s climax that could usefully have been patched.

The G major Sextet, Op. 36, is the work of an older and wiser Brahms, one in which he says goodbye to his first love, Agathe von Siebold. Again, the phrasing can turn clunky when Brahms is at his most insistent, but the slow movement has a rapt intensity, and throughout, the players keep the textures spacious and take care with the long-term shaping. Together the two works make for a sign-off that is both joyful and poignant.


Erica Jeal