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Great Britain - Great Music
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
String Sextet in E flat major (1906/12) [28:10]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Scherzo for Sextet (1897) [9:20]
Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
String Sextet in D Major, Op. 43 Henry Vaughan (1902) [23:07]
Cologne String Sextet
rec. 2018, WDR Klaus-von-Bismarck Saal, Cologne
CAVI-MUSIC 8553079 [60:07]

This is a gratifyingly exploratory programme from the Cologne String Sextet and it’s surely not their fault that all the pieces are claimed as world premiere recordings when, so far as I can see, only the Holst Scherzo falls under that heading. Avi-Music needs to scan its catalogues and databases.

Frank Bridge’s String Sextet gestated between 1906 and 1912 and it’s played with a slightly abrasive tone here and the recording exacerbates a certain amount of shrillness from the violins. This isn’t necessarily destabilizing but it’s accompanied by a horizontality of phrasing with the result that the writing emerges as slightly tentative and even in places lumpy. If you favour this approach you will admire the bracing way they take the slow movement – it’s decidedly robust – and their splendidly taken transition to the allegro giusto. Here Holst’s folkloric writing, which takes the place of a conventional Scherzo, is energetically projected. So, some fine if inconsistent playing and some less than convincing interpretation. For a fuller picture turn to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble on Chandos CHAN9472. Their recording is warmer though more distant, but you’ll find greater instrumental finesse, subtler phrasing and a more comprehensive appreciation of the genre.

Holbrooke’s Sextet was written in 1902 and subtitled Henry Vaughan. The Cologne ensemble really dig into this work, making a considerable contrast to the approach taken by the New Haydn Quartet and their string confreres on Marco Polo 8.223736. The New Haydn team vibrate far more intensely and expressively and phrase with a far greater sense of the music’s introspection. Indeed, when they need to be, they can be positively wrenching. The Cologne players are certainly not unfeeling but are far more reserved and less inclined to dig too deep. Arguably this approach suits the transition from the opening slow introduction to the ensuing Allegro – but I’ll be sticking with the more graphic realization of the New Haydn. This applies to the ripeness of the slow movement with its strong sense of tension and very much so in the finale. The New Haydn are the bigger personalities and they do well by the rumbustious, cocky themes Holbrooke lines up. For a more linear, less witty approach, go for the Cologne.

The Holst Scherzo, H23 was composed in 1897. Written during his studies at the Royal College of Music it seems to have been intended for a larger-scaled work, but this is all that now survives. Somewhat modal and with dance themes it’s youthful and charming. At nine minutes it somewhat strains for its material but Holstians will want to hear it, though probably not that often. I’m not sure there has been a prior recording of this, but could be wrong.

With an occasionally sinewy WDR broadcast recording and decent notes this might tempt those curious about the repertoire though as I’ve made clear, my own allegiances lie elsewhere.

Jonathan Woolf

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