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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextets: No. 1 in B flat, op. 18, no. 2 in G, op. 36
Yehudi Menuhin, Robert Masters (violin), Cecil Aronowitz, Ernst Wallfisch (viola), Maurice Gendron, Derek Simpson (violoncellos)
Recorded Sep. 1963, Dec. 1964, No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London
EMI CLASSICS CDE 5 74957 2 [75.02]


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The combination of the name of Brahms and string chamber music tends to conjure up austere, cerebral images, yet the first Sextet exploits the potential richness of the six players to create a glorious lyrical outpouring. That it creates this impression is due in no small measure to the performers. Apart from Menuhin himself, we have the then leader of the Bath Festival Orchestra (of which Menuhin was director at the time), Robert Masters, three leading British-based chamber musicians and, in Maurice Gendron, a soloist of international stature. These line-ups dont always work, of course; these players are clearly united by their love of the music they are playing. It would be hard to describe adequately such wonderful music-making, and reductive to single out particular passages when the whole is so convincing. It seems that their familiarity with the work is such that they can be quite flexible over details without ever losing sight of the overall shape. Above all, they seem to alight upon each new moment as if they are discovering it for the first time. This is a treasurable performance indeed.

Although the two Sextets were published three years apart, it is likely that they were written more or less contemporaneously. The second produces a remarkably spare texture considering six instruments are involved and there is a suspicion about it of "well, Ive written one so I suppose Id better write another". It is one of those Brahms works where a logical structural layout seems to prevail over communicative urgency, causing it to yield its secrets more slowly. Or is it the performers who make it seem so? For I also detect a feeling of "well, weve recorded no. 1 so wed better record no. 2". Another time, even if the same place Its a highly professional job, from composer and performers alike, no doubt about it, and inspiration cant always be caught on the wing.

If another group can persuade me that the relative inspiration of these two works is the other way round I shall be delighted to say so. In the meantime, the quite wonderful playing of no. 1, in a warm, clear and well-balanced recording, is more than enough to make this an essential disc. The "music-for-the-kiddies" notes offer brief introductions to composer, music and "The Artist" Yehudi Menuhin. And what if one of the kiddies pipes up with, "Hey, daddy, theres six of them"?


Christopher Howell


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