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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, op. 36 (1864-65)
String Quartet in C minor Op. 51 No. 1 (c.1868-73)
Leipzig String Quartet
Hartmut Rohde, viola (Op. 36)
Peter Bruns, cello (Op. 36)
Recording: Markkleeberg, Jan. 26-27, 2004 (Op. 51/1); Paul-Gerhard-Kirche, Leipzig, May 21-22, 2004 DDD

String Sextet No. 2 in G major, op. 36

Brahms actually composed two works for String Sextet, Op.18 and Op.36, for an ensemble comprised of a pair each of violins, violas and cellos. The Op. 36 Sextet, subtitled Agathe, uses both rhythm and musical notation, the notes A-G-A-H-E (forget the T, the "H" is B natural in German notation), to evoke the name of Brahms’ beloved, Agathe von Siebold, from whom he fled when their marriage seemed expected and impending. Brahms felt remorseful. "I have played the scoundrel toward Agathe," he wrote. However the composition of the Sextet proved cathartic for him. Referring to this composition he said, "I have emancipated myself from my last love". Work on the Sextet probably started some four years before his involvement with Agathe. It was completed five years after their break-up although the bulk of the score seems to have been written in 1864 and 1865.

The first movement Allegro non troppo, which opens in a hushed mysterious mood, contains the ‘Agathe’ motto as well as a rhythmic motif at the end of the opening theme that suggests the syllabic stress of the name when spoken. This rhythmic motif can also be found in the second movement Scherzo, as well as a lively stomping Ländler-like Trio section. The third movement Poco Adagio was described by the renowned Viennese critic, friend and supporter of Brahms, Edward Hanslick as "variations on no theme". However careful listening will reveal this non-theme's resemblance to the opening theme of the first movement. The final movement Poco Allegro alternates lively and relaxed episodes, fugal passages and long-lined songs. Emancipation at last from an unquiet conscience, perhaps?

This is a well controlled and confident account by the augmented Leipzig String Quartet who play with an unmannered intensity. The pensive and somewhat unsettled mood of the first movement Allegro is capably communicated by the players. Also well interpreted is the pastoral quality of the third movement Poco Adagio. The anguish of the dark-hued undercurrents of this multi-faceted score are better conveyed on rival versions from the Stuttgart Soloists on Naxos 8.550436 and the period instrument ensemble L’Archibudelli on Sony SBK90477. Both the suggested recordings are coupled with the Brahms String Sextet, Op.18 and are available at super-bargain price.

String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1

The second work on this release is the four movement String Quartet in C minor, Op. 51 No. 1. It is not known exactly when the work was composed but it is known that the Hellmesberger Quartet premiered the score on December 11, 1873 in Vienna.

Perhaps Brahms was exaggerating when he stated that he had composed and destroyed twenty other String quartets prior to the publication of this C minor Quartet.

Described as a ‘masterwork’ by many critics Brahms uses economy, structural mastery and an integration rarely encountered in his early chamber scores. Brahms’s penchant for weaving seamless sonata forms is exercised in the opening Allegro movement of the C minor String Quartet. The main theme, built from an agitated, rising, dotted-rhythm motif, is presented immediately by the first violin. The movement is remarkable for its wide ranging treatment of tonality. The second movement Romanze is in sonatina form (sonata without a development section), and begins with a tender theme in dotted-rhythm motion which is permitted to grow into the heartbreaking melancholia of the second theme. Brahms has created a lyrical movement which is languid, unsettled and introspective. Only in the third movement is the gloom dispelled, where in place of the expected Scherzo, Brahms inserts a movement in the nature of an intermezzo whose central section mimics the style of the popular Austrian Ländler. The Allegro finale returns to the tragic mood of the first movement. Its principal subject hints at the themes of both the opening Allegro and the Romanze, and launches a movement that is complex in its formal realization and austere in its emotional milieu.

In the C minor String Quartet the Leipzig String Quartet give a thoughtful, rather measured and poised interpretation which fails to reveal the intense heart-searching temperament of this passionate score. The Belcea Quartet have recently released an enchanting and stylish recording of this work which is superior to this account from the Leipzig String Quartet. My main recommendation for this work however is contained on the complete set of the three Brahms String quartets together with the Piano quintet Op.34 from the Borodin Quartet on Teldec Ultima 8573-87802-2. An amazing buy at super-bargain price and performed by the Borodins with appropriate poignancy and marvellous precision.

The recorded sound is of the high quality that has come to be expected from the MDG Gold label. These are fine accounts by the Leipzig String Quartet, that will provide much pleasure.

Michael Cookson

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