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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No.1 in B flat, Op.18 (1859) [39:18]
String Sextet No.2 in G, Op.36 (1864) [38:01]
The Nash Ensemble (Marianne Thorsen (violin); Malin Broman (violin); Lawrence Power (viola); Philip Dukes (viola); Paul Watkins (cello); Tim Hugh (cello))
rec. Champs Hill, Pulborough, Sussex, England, 20-22 December 2006. DDD.
ONYX 4019 [77:19]


 

 

Why are there penguins on the front cover, inside the case and on the label? Presumably for the same reason that there is a row of seats on the cover of the Nash Ensemble’s version of the Mendelssohn Piano Trios (ONYX 4011). Three seats for the trios, six penguins – the male members of the Nash Ensemble in their ‘penguin suits’? – for the sextets; not exactly the most subtle of visual puns. This may seem a trivial criticism but I can easily imagine looking at the cover of this disc in a shop and putting it down as not a serious contender.

My next problem was that the sound is rather recessed at the outset, with the ensemble a little too distant. This is better than too forward a sound and the ear soon adjusts. Partly it is of the nature of these sextets that with two cellos the sound is warm rather than bright – indeed, it is a cello theme which opens the First Sextet – but I do think that the recording slightly over-favours the lower end of the sound spectrum. Perhaps, too, the recording engineers were trying to avoid the slight blaring in forte passages which Michael Cookson noted in his review of the Mendelssohn Trios on this site in November 2006. Otherwise he found the recording, made at the same venue, decently balanced and reasonably clear.

In the booklet Joanna Wyld makes the case for linking both works to Brahms’s tangled relationships with Agathe von Siebold, his first love, and Clara Schumann, whose husband had died three years before the first Sextet; Brahms had adopted the role of Clara’s protector and their relationship had begun to assume the on-off nature which characterised it thereafter.

Having urged the case recently for a connection between Schubert’s final illness and the mood of his String Quintet, it may seem perverse to minimise this element of the Sextets but more important for me is the crisis in Brahms’s creative life. The notes mention this, but do not pursue it. His Piano Concerto No.1 had not made the impression he had hoped for and it was to be some time before he returned to the concerto form. For the time being he seems to have been afraid to compose in any format that could be interpreted as an attempt to emulate the great musical successes of his predecessors, especially Beethoven and his late friend Schumann. When he did finally commit himself to the First Symphony, the big tune of the finale caused it to be dubbed ‘Beethoven’s tenth’, raising the very comparison that Brahms had tried to avoid; his attempt to pass the matter off with a joke – that any ass could see the similarity – may well have hidden his true feelings.

He avoided for the time being the chamber music forms associated with Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Schumann, but none of his great predecessors had attempted a Sextet. The First Sextet is similar in its range of moods, and in its employment of a second cello, to the Schubert String Quintet, which had received its posthumous first public performance in 1850, but neither Brahms’s andante ma moderato second movement nor the poco adagio of the Second Sextet matches the intensity of the adagio of the Schubert.

The Nash Ensemble face strong competition in these works, with an excellent version from the Raphael Ensemble, fine performances from the ASMF Chamber Ensemble, the augmented Lindsay Quartet and Hausmusik, and a recommendable bargain version from Menuhin et al. Setting aside my reservations about the sound, the new disc offers very fine performances, but it is not quite ideal.

Most of the members of the Nash Ensemble are well-known soloists but here the keynote is smoothness and integration – six instruments playing as one. This is, of course, a virtue, but I could have welcomed a little more individuality. The beginning of the First Sextet is a case in point: the opening cello theme is answered by the first violin and first viola but the impression that the Nash Ensemble give is of a corporate entity answering itself, rather than an interplay of individuals. The credits in the booklet and on the rear cover emphasise the role of the Nash Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Amelia Freedman, CBE, FRAM; perhaps there has been a little too much external direction in this case. One hardly imagines Joachim, the leader at the first performance in 1860, integrating himself in quite this way. Of course, the tension between the rich overall sound and the individual contributions is bound always to be a consideration but the effect of homogeneity from the Nash Ensemble is enhanced by the failure of the recording to locate the individual instruments as clearly as most modern chamber-music recordings. Even listening on headphones, which usually produces exaggerated separation in listening to chamber music, does not entirely focus the sound sonically or spatially.

The Ensemble resist the temptation to wring too much emotion out of the andante ma moderato of the First Sextet or the poco adagio of the Second Sextet. In both these movements they are slightly brisker than the Raphael Ensemble (9:40 against 9:58 and 8:50 against 9:24) but there was no sense of hurry in either movement; indeed, throughout, the tempi which they adopt seem well-justified.

There is much to admire and to enjoy in these performances but, for me, admiration rather than enjoyment is the keynote. The technical excellence of the Nash Ensemble can be taken for granted and they capture the varying moods of these two works very well. I feel that I should respond more positively to both the performances and the recording – I know that others have called both exemplary and I cannot imagine anyone being seriously disappointed – yet I cannot recommend this as the best available version. Perhaps part of the problem is that these are not my favourite Brahms chamber works. I fully concur with those who point to the elegant, effortless and dignified playing, but I also feel the slight lack of individuality to which I have referred and I attach more significance to the lack of differentiation in the recording than do those who note it but consider it comparatively unimportant. In all fairness I should add that these more positive reactions to the performance and recording can be found on the Onyx website.

To end on a positive note, the finale of the Second Sextet closes the CD in just the right way. The Nash Ensemble really capture the carefree, skittish yet graceful air of the movement – they seem more willing to take chances than in the earlier movements – and the recording captures their most delicate nuances. If the whole disc had been of this quality, it might have been an outright winner.

With repeated hearings my reservations about the Nash Ensemble performance and recording diminished, especially when I stopped scoring points and sat back just to listen, but the Raphael Ensemble (Hyperion CDA66276) seem a safer recommendation – and their cover artwork, depicting the lake of Thun, certainly wins the day over those penguins. The cover of the Menuhin version, with its bisected and fragmented painting is almost as quirky as the Onyx: EMI Encore 5 74957 2. With all repeats observed, the Onyx is a well-filled CD, but so is the Hyperion. Try the RealPlayer sample of the Raphaels’ scherzo of Sextet No.1. For those who prefer period instruments, Colin Clarke on this site in April 2004 found the Hausmusik performances (Signum SIGCD013) more satisfying than the London Concertante version of the Second Sextet which he was reviewing.

Brian Wilson

 


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