Brahms was a most accomplished pianist and supported
his family financially from an early age playing the piano in
dockside bordellos in the port of Hamburg. Furthermore his output
for the piano spanned his entire life often making piano reductions
of his orchestral, choral and chamber works; many of them for
piano-duo to allow them greater accessibility to a much wider
audience. Only recently I heard on the radio Brahms’s own piano
reduction of his mighty German Requiem.
This Naxos release contains reductions for four-hand
piano of Brahms’s first and second String Sextets, which
I feel are very welcome additions to the catalogue.
Brahms was the first significant composer to write a
String Sextet for a chamber ensemble comprising two violins,
two violas and two cellos. The first String Sextet was
the Op.18 from 1862 and the second String Sextet Op.36
was completed in 1865. Brahms’s choice of the richly upholstered
instrumentation provided by the genre of the String Sextet resulted
in a melodic radiance and expressive freedom unmatched by any
of his other chamber works.
The String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op.
18 was written in Brahms’s twenty-ninth year and this work
is a fine example of the composer making a significant stride
away from his apprenticeship towards maturity. There are clearly
some pages in the score that display the influence of Haydn,
Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert but as biographer Daniel Gregory
Mason points out, “the change in point is more striking than
the influences it makes room for.” The work is Brahms’s first
published chamber work without a piano in the score.
The work, especially in the first two movements, betrays
Brahms’s turbulent emotions at this time in his life. The first
movement marked Allegro ma non troppo is considered to
be amongst the most lyrical of all of his opening movements
with a Schubertian breadth and ease of expression that is captivating.
The slow movement is a series of theme and variations which
was a form that Brahms was to use with particular mastery. There
is a ländler-like rhythmic swing in the third movement Scherzo
and an expressive Rondo with contrasting sonorities
that closes the work.
The String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36,
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 and was completed
five years after their break-up. 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. The
motif 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,
Eduard 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?
German born duo Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Kohn
have been performing together as a partnership for almost twenty
years and seem very much at one with this repertoire. It is
amazing how listening to the duo playing these arrangements
for four-hand piano manages to uncover so many new and exciting
insights into the scores.
Their playing really helps to express the easy-going
lyricism of the Op. 18 String Sextet. I especially liked
the way the duo portray the yearning ecstasy in the opening
movement and the energy and good humour of the Scherzo. The
ethereal nature of the Op. 36 String Sextet is vividly
interpreted. The duo’s interpretation of the contrasting technical
and emotional demands of the Poco allegro closing movement
is particularly impressive.
It is a puzzle why these recordings which were made in
November 1999 have only been released now in early 2005; however
with playing as fine as this it has been well worth the wait.
It is hard to fault the sound quality from the Naxos engineers.
The booklet notes are fairly interesting and reasonably informative.
The playing of Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Kohn
demands admiration. This is another collectable volume from
Naxos in their impressive series of Brahms’s four hand piano
see also Review
by Colin Clarke