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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four-hand piano music, vol. 13
String Sextets (arr. piano duet composer) - No. 1 in B flat, Op. 18 (1858-60) [22'26]; No. 2 in G, Op. 36 (1864/5) [38'22]
Silke-Thora Matthies, Christian Köhn (piano duet).
Rec. Clara Wieck Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany, on November 2nd-4th, 1999
NAXOS 8.554817 [74'35]


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It would appear this disc has sat on the Naxos shelves awaiting release for a full five years. Perhaps the company does not think it important. After all, the booklet notes appear to be their house notes on the original Sextets with the briefest of addenda regarding the current arrangements.

Were it not for the dedicated playing of Matthies and Köhn, it might be easy to justify this. In fact, the two performances here demonstrate piano duet playing of the first order. One misses the true legato of stringed instruments. Right at the very opening of the first movement of Op. 18 - i.e., the first thing you hear, is a good example of this. Yet one becomes involved in the listening experience because Matthies and Köhn make such a point of following the music's structural contours. Only occasionally does one feel that this is a obviously a reduction, however.

The slow movement is famous in its own right., a series of D minor variations. It could be grander than Matthies and Köhn see it. Essentially, one should be made more aware that great things are afoot, and that is not the case here. Much better is the  Scherzo - Allegro molto, very light, cheeky and jocular, in a rounded, bearded sort of way, while the finale retains a lovely sense of flow.

The G major, Op. 36 immediately reveals the limitations of the transcription. An oscillating two-note figure, so appropriate to strings, merely sounds awkward here. The loss of string colour is also felt acutely around the eight-minute mark, at which point we really are listening in black-and-white as opposed to, at least, the sepia autumnal Brahmsian colours of the string original.

This time it is the Scherzo that comes second, a movement in which Brahms seems to want to imitate the Mendelssohn of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Matthies and Köhn are at their best in this movement, with some moments of real magic.

If the Scherzo works as transcription, the same cannot be said of the Poco Adagio. It is very well played here, but this really does sound like compromise, the bare lines of the opening, for example, needing the legato (again) and the intensity that solo strings can give. The repeated-note gala that is the finale includes some glittering, delightful playing although, again because of the reduction, it does seem to go on rather.

Worth hearing in some respects, then, not least for the intense musicality of the Matthies and Köhn team. The recording, by the way, seemed much better on speakers than on headphones, gaining substantial depth.

Colin Clarke




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