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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat, Op 18 (1860) [37:02]
String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op 36 (1865) [39:34]
Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward & Tom Stone (violin); Ethan Filner (viola); Jennifer Kloetzel (cello))
Barry Shiffman (viola); Zuill Bailey (cello)
rec. live, 26-30 April, 2016, Scoring Stage, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California. DDD
AVIE AV2294 [76:50]

In 2016, after 20 very successful years together, the San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet disbanded. They have quite a discography to their credit. Some time ago I enjoyed a disc that included the wonderful Ravel Quartet (review). For Avie their output has included a complete cycle of the Beethoven quartets (review ~ review ~ review). There also have been a couple of Dvořák discs, once of which included Cypresses, the work from which they took their name (review ~ review). In addition they have set down contemporary American music, including a Quartet by Jennifer Higdon (review) and three by Benjamin Lees (review); most of those American works were written for them.

This present disc is their final recording. They say in a booklet message that they deliberately chose to push themselves further in this recording and one element of that was the decision to record before a live studio audience. I must say that the audiences were impeccably behaved; you would not know they were present and there is no applause. Another decision was to go beyond the quartet repertoire and invite two longstanding friends and collaborators, Barry Shiffman and Zuill Bailey, to join them. It seems that the choice of repertoire was easy: the Brahms sextets “with their warmth and reflective qualities, are perfectly suited to saying farewell.”

The performances are very fine. The First Sextet is a glorious, rich-hued work and nowhere more so than in its first movement. The picture on the back of the jewel case shows the ensemble on stage with the two cellos in the centre, the violas on the audience’s right and the violins to the left. That arrangement means we get the cello sound presented very generously. From the start it’s evident that there’s a fine empathy between the six musicians. I found it very easy to surrender to the warmth of the music and the very stylish phrasing.

The second movement is a set of variations on La Folia. I don’t know whether this was intentional, given the fact that the inspiration for the variations is a centuries-old melody, but at times the sound of the ensemble is reminiscent of a viol consort. That’s certainly the case in the first half of the movement where the violas and celli are the most prominent voices. The sound of the instruments is sinewy and often powerfully projected. The short Scherzo receives a sprightly performance. In the concluding Rondo the players bring out the lyrical side of the music very well but also deliver the more urgent passages most convincingly.

The G major work inhabits a somewhat different soundworld. The ensemble’s sound is rather brighter and there’s more prominence for the violins. This may well be because Brahms chose a sharp home key and also because the writing for the celli exploits the upper register of the instruments more. The first movement is lyrical yet restless. In his valuable notes Brahms biographer Jan Swafford demonstrates how Brahms reflected the fact that some years before he had made a mess of terminating his relationship with Agathe von Siebold, to whom he had become secretly engaged. In the Cypress performance there’s particular intensity in the lead up to the movement’s climax and at the climax itself, all of which reflects a final farewell to Agathe and the memory of their relationship.

There’s no little delicacy in the delivery of the Scherzo though, rightly, the trio is much more virile, the rhythms sharply articulated. In the Poco adagio the textures are much leaner than anywhere else on the disc. As Jan Swafford says of the music, it is “at moments absolutely bleak”. Here the players invest it with no little feeling and in the faster section they project the music strongly. This is an eloquent account of the movement. In contrast the finale is extrovert – it’s as if the clouds had blown away – and here the playing is suitably spirited.

The one reservation I have about this disc is that the sound is somewhat full-on. I had to reduce the volume setting and even then the sound is robust. It’s very evidently a studio recording and, especially in music such as this, I would have welcomed a bit more space and natural resonance around the ensemble. On the other hand the recording does have the merit of great clarity.

However, the music is wonderful and the performances are first rate so there need be no reservations on artistic grounds. With help from two friends, the Cypress String Quartet have ended their recording career on a high.

John Quinn



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