Brahms: String Sextets Nos 1 & 2

COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Onyx
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: String Sextets Nos 1 & 2
PERFORMER: Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: 4019
With its expansive structures, sumptuous textures and nostalgically lyrical melodies, Brahms’s early B flat Sextet bears all the obvious stylistic hallmarks of a work of autumnal retrospection. These characteristics are certainly emphasised in the Nash Ensemble’s leisurely performance of its outer movements. Yet although this approach may seem persuasive on one level, it seems to bypass some of the music’s youthful ardour; and the tendency to revel in the richness of the sonority – a feature accentuated here by the exceptionally strong playing of the Nash’s lower strings in relation to the less powerful violins – tends to disrupt the natural flow of the musical argument. In contrast, the Raphael Ensemble on Hyperion doesn’t fall into the same trap. Their performance attains just as much emotional intensity but with greater momentum, textural clarity and instrumental equality, the Scherzo in particular achieving a wonderful lightness of articulation.

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In the G major Sextet, on the other hand, the Nash are less guilty of presenting Brahms with middle-aged spread; the first movement in particular builds up to a highly convincing and dynamic climax in the development section. Likewise, the Finale is delivered with bracing energy and enthusiasm. All in all it’s an extremely fine and clearly recorded performance, but once again there are momentary details in the Raphael Ensemble’s performance, such as the sensitive shaping of the pizzicato accompaniment to the Scherzo’s opening and the deeply introspective account of the Poco adagio, that provide a more complete picture of the work. Erik Levi