Brahms String Sextets

String Sextet No.1 in B flat, Op.18
String Sextet No.2 in G, Op.36

LSO Chamber Ensemble
[Gordon Nikolitch & David Alberman (violins), Edward Vanderspar & Gillianne Haddow (violas), Tim Hugh & Rebecca Gilliver (cellos)]

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 3 June, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

We cannot expect to hear a permanent string sextet performing these magnificent works, but here we had the next best thing: distinguished Principal members of the LSO – players of many years’ standing and therefore well used to performing together.

They turned in sleek and accomplished performances. This is no mean feat – for, in many ways, the string sextet is a rather ungainly ensemble. Maybe it’s a string quartet with additional viola and cello; maybe it’s a skeleton string orchestra in which violas and cellos outnumber violins. It can sound either very rich and luscious or, in less skilled hands, rather cumbersome and opaque.

The writing must play its part, too. A sextet gives scope for impressive, serious block-writing, heavily harmonised. Much lighter textures are also possible, with more fleeting, agile sounds from the lower instruments – pizzicato and staccato from the cellos, for example. Such a manoeuvre lends well to accompanying impassioned lyrical themes on the violins, heralding a heavier, more luxurious reprise on the cellos later on. There is scope, too, for highlighting the viola – as, indeed, Brahms does from time to time. Witness the opening to the Second Sextet, its wavering semitone figure creating a jittery unease suited to the following love theme in which the composer declares, “I have emancipated myself from my last love” (Agathe von Siebold).

Both slow movements are in Theme and Variation form, enabling Brahms to vary frequently between sober and lightweight, seriousness and delicacy, romance and high spirits. The two scherzos are fast and energetic, dance-like – reproducing ländler in the first and a stamping Bohemian dance in the second. In terms of sound, though, the highest seriousness of all, and the most portentous, is the fugal writing during the second sextet’s finale, achieving a thunderous richness to emphasise the work’s culmination.

In the hands of such skilled practitioners, it would be invidious to single out any one performer. This was ensemble playing of the highest order. The Barbican Hall was packed for the occasion. Many listeners seemed to be music students, taking the advantage of hearing live performances of these rarely-played works. Their ears were fully rewarded.

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