Brahms: String Sextets No. 1; String Sextet No. 2

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: ASV Gold
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: String Sextets No. 1; String Sextet No. 2
PERFORMER: The Lindsays; with Louise Williams (viola), Paul Watkins (cello)
CATALOGUE NO: GLD 4016
Brahms’s Sextets, the composer’s earliest foray into string chamber music, are enormously rewarding to play but often less enjoyable to listen to. The First, in the unforgiving key of B flat major, requires a degree of precision and sensitivity in intonation and ensemble to which few ad hoc groups can aspire. Musically, this work is the most straightforwardly open and lyrical, and the Lindsays capture this with customary exuberance. Unfortunately, while the spirit is willing the flesh is sometimes weak: this is a laboured performance, trills are not sufficiently tight, intonation can be wayward and the whole lurches rather than flows forwards. The very brilliance of the solos, particularly glorious from the cellist Paul Watkins, only undermines the already loose ensemble. The Scherzo has some bite and bounce, but compared with the vivacious Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion) the Lindsays are stodgy, and some rough tuning in this movement especially spoils it. Turning to L’Archibudelli’s recording (Sony), while one misses the Brahmsian heft of the Lindsays’, the ensemble is exceptional: such is the refinement of sound in both sextets that one cannot distinguish six players within them.

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The sunshine of the First gives way to shadowy mystery in the G major Sextet. That extraordinary, enigmatic opening, with the violas murmuring their alternating semitones is a challenge. The Lindsays take great care over this, starting with an aptly limpid delicacy and some lovely florid touches; but as the quartet progresses, once again there is strain in the intonation and ensemble, and some rough patches from Cropper. Again, it is the Raphael Ensemble, led by the excellent James Clark back in 1988, who approach this radiant but complex work with a natural feel for its line, a wonderful range of texture and near-perfect ensemble. Theirs remains a benchmark. Helen Wallace