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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op.36 (1865) [39:89]
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op.18 (1860) [37:35]
Quatuor Sine Nomine; Nicolas Pache (viola); François Guye (cello)
rec. 9-11 February 2014, Théâtre Populaire Romand, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland
CLAVES CD50-1410 [77:26]

I was very enthusiastic when this CD was released as I have recently acquired the Sine Nomine’s five CD Schubert string quartet cycle on Cascavelle (VEL 3115). This impressed me a great deal and should be heard by anyone wanting a first-class recording of these works.

Here Sine Nomine turn their hands to two masterpieces of the chamber repertoire, Brahms' two String Sextets. During Brahms’ lifetime, the string quartet and the symphony were two genres which had reached their peak of achievement in Beethoven. To escape comparison, Brahms avoided the string quartet until later, and turned his attention to the string sextet, which up to that time had only found a champion in Luigi Boccherini. By adding an extra viola and cello to the basic string quartet, he could realize a lush richer sound, with a wider range of textures. The music displays bold, audacious modulation and skilful development.

The Op. 18 Sextet is youthful Brahms at his best. Composed in four movements, the outer ones are expansive and scored in classical forms. Curiously, in the first and fourth movements, the opening theme is ushered in by the cello, and both similarly employ pizzicato at the end. The second movement is a set of variations in D minor and the theme, dark and world-weary, is introduced on the viola. There follow five variations and an exquisite coda. The composer arranged this movement for solo piano in 1860. The Scherzo is of a strongly accented rustic character. The finale is an expansive Rondo of sunny, upbeat disposition. I find the first Sextet more melodious and extrovert than the second.

The String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op.36 is set in a more serious vein. It is more abstract and intellectual, and less popular generally than the first. It certainly took more effort when I first came to these works many years ago. It doesn’t reveal its secrets as easily, and is less reluctant to let you into its more complex world. I now find it the more satisfying of the two. The opening melody of the first movement is certainly not as ear-catching as its Op.18 equivalent. There’s a certain degree of reserve, restraint and mystery to it. In this movement, the composer brought closure to a failed relationship with Agathe von Seibold, whom he had met in 1858. He seemed to lack the ability to commit himself in relationships, which led to the affair ending unhappily; he remained single for the rest of his life. He wove the letters of Agathe’s name into the second theme of this opening movement, afterwards declaring to a friend ‘I have freed myself from my last love’. There follows a Scherzo, which has a delightful, lyrical melody over a pizzicato accompaniment. This eventually leads into a dance theme. The third movement adagio tells of an ardent surging passion, building up to a climax of emotional intensity. The finale ends the work with a nervous, restless energy.

The success of the present recording lies, to a great extent, in the differing approach the players take to two emotionally contrasting works - the more extrovert Op. 18, and the more inward Op. 36. Whilst some recordings I have heard have not really tackled the problem of the dense textures, sounding at times congested, with lack of instrumental detail and clarity, the Sine Nomine, together with the Claves’ engineers, have overcome the problems. This produces an airier, transparent sound and a satisfying range of tonal colour. These players have these works at their fingertips and, like any good ensemble, the musicians listen and respond sensitively to each other. These are well-considered, idiomatic readings showing care with phrasing and dynamics. The acoustic is flattering and conveys warmth, richness and intimacy.

I listened to this new release side-by-side with two others. The Raphael Ensemble’s Hyperion recording (CDA66276) has garnered many positive reviews over the years, yet I find their take on these works far from ideal. Taped in an over-resonant acoustic the players are recessed and the performance is less than engaging. The ASMF (CHAN 9151) are captured in considerably brighter and more vivid sound. This enables much of the instrumental detail to become more apparent. Everything about the recording ticks all the right boxes. I would now add this marvellous Claves recording as a pleasing alternative to the Chandos.

The acoustic of the Théâtre Populaire Romand confers a warm and sympathetic ambience. Balance between the individual instruments is ideal and this allows the sometimes thick textures to be transparently conveyed with definition. It puzzles me why the Sextets have been placed in reverse order as I would have preferred a chronological sequencing. This is a very minor problem for the listener and can be easily rectified.

Conveniently packaged in a slim digipak, with booklet handily attached to the back cover, this constitutes an aesthetically pleasing presentation. Informative notes on the works themselves and the performers are in French, German and English. Like all successful recordings this release has left me with a hunger for more. I’d now like to explore their recordings of the composer’s quartets and string quintets.

Stephen Greenbank