Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat Major, op 18 (1860) [34:03]
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, op 36 (1865) [37:35]
Roland Glassl (viola)
Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt (cello)
rec. December 2016, Leibniz Saal Hannover Congress Centrum, Germany AUDITE 97.715 [71:41]
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat Major, op 18 (1860) [37:16]
String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, op 36 (1865) [39:31]
Renaud Capuçon, Christoph Koncz (violins), Gérard Caussé, Marie Chilemme (violas) & Gautier Capuçon, Clemens Hagen (cellos)
rec. March 2016, Conservatoire Darius Milhaud, Aix-en-Provence ERATO 9029 588837 [76:49]
Brahms’ two early String Sextets are among his most glorious works. They resonate with the controlled passion that infuses so much of his work, and in this instance we can link the music to an event in Brahms’ life. Brahms wrote the 1860 sextet after breaking his engagement to the singer, Agathe von Seibold. She was still very much on his mind as he wrote the 1865 sextet, in which he encoded her name. Whether this was a hidden tribute or a neurotic tic, Brahms apparently satisfied himself: “I have shaken off my last love”. This pair of ardent works show Brahms’ fondness for dark colours and his experimentation with instrumental combinations and textures.
There are many fine recordings of these works, to which we need to add these new versions. Both ensembles are family-based. The Mandelring Quartet is built upon three siblings named Schmidt. The Aix-en-Provence festival performance centers around the Capuçon brothers, violinist Renaud and cellist Gautier. Both feature outstanding playing in carefully prepared performances. The Mandelring is somewhat brisker, often giving the music a swing missed by many ensembles. With tempi that are often somewhat broader, the Capuçon plays lovingly, never quite stepping into sentimentality.
Let me compare one favorite passage, the second subject in the opening Allegro non troppo of Sextet No. 2. Here Brahms encodes Agathe’s name into the musical notes of a passionate melody. The Mandelring Quartet makes this 3/4 melody soar ebulliently by taking it at one beat per measure. In contrast, the Capuçons make the same passage sound rather operatic, like a sextet of Verdi voices spilling their passions in an Act I finale. Both approaches are exciting.
The Capuçon is a great recording. The six instruments are closely miked, so that the sound from my sofa is like sitting in my favorite second row seat in the concert hall. But many listeners do not like to sit so close to the stage. The Mandelring recording is more distant, with details not so sharply etched. It is still a perfectly satisfactory recording, however, and lacks the annoying applause included by Erato. Yes, we know that it was a live performance and that the audience really enjoyed it, but it does not wear well on repeated hearing, unless perhaps you are a relative of the musicians.
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