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BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat; No. 2 in G; String Quintet No. 1 in F; No. 2 in G – Alexander String Q. – Foghorn Classics

BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18; No. 2 in G, Op. 36; String Quintet No. 1 in F, Op. 88; No. 2 in G, Op. 111 – Alexander String Quartet – Foghorn Classics CD2012 (2 CDs), 75:36, 54:57 [Distr. by Allegro] *****:

There have not been many string sextets; why is hard to say. For Brahms they were like a stepping stone to a fuller orchestral experience, and indeed he was so pathologically averse to attempting a symphony for so long that it was almost a matter of superstition for him as he wrote so many orchestral works before then. But the Sextets are among his earliest pieces, and while the First strikes many as bold and classical in its references to those masters he so revered, I have always found it somewhat vacuous. It doesn’t find its way into my player too often. Brahms could hit and hit big in so many ways in his moments of inspiration, but he could also miss big as well, and even his sheer and rather breathtaking technique and fine-honed sense of harmony and melody couldn’t always carry the day. Hugo Wolf’s criticism that Brahms “rarely knew how to handle one of his frequently lovely melodies” has some basis in fact.

With the Second Sextet only four years after the initial effort, the developmental process is staggering in terms of ideas and how to link them together. This is one of the glories of the entire chamber music catalog, and maybe it’s because he actually let his lovelorn feelings in the piece in a way that he rarely allowed. He was engaged to Agathe von Siebold and broke it off suddenly, later setting her very name into the motto for the work. Was he feeling guilty? Probably. Was he correct in realizing that a normal love life was not to be, and sad about it? Again most likely. Whatever the reasons, this one stands heads and shoulders above the listless and nominally interesting Opus 18.

Fast forward 17 years and we have Brahms returning to string chamber music, this time to a string quintet (with viola) that he was, unusually again, quite pleased with. And again posterity seems not so sure, as the work is not on his “most popular” list, and even now, though it has obvious attractions and felicities, doesn’t have the grabbing power of so many of his best works. Not so opus 111, the last work before his “retirement” and one of the pinnacles of the chamber music repertory. The warmth of the Italian sun where he was vacationing finds its way into the genial breezes of this piece that makes it one of the greatest he ever penned, though even here we must be cautious in our enthusiasm, and neither of the two quintets ranks with his most popular chamber pieces. Sometimes I think people look for too much in these two works, and rather than being overly-analytical should simply sit back and enjoy.

The Alexander certainly seem to be enjoying themselves in these gracious and highly-involved accounts recorded in California with terrific sound. While I can’t say they top the list with favorites like the Nash Ensemble on Onyx or the sensational though a tad overblown reading of the Sextets with the old Cleveland Quartet with Pinchas Zukerman and Bernard Greenhouse on RCA and now a private label, they certainly prove their equal, and the audio is sensational. Though these are not the best Brahms works in the world, they are still mandatory for anyone who cares about the composer, and recordings like this might just bring new and previously unnoticed pleasures to light.

—Steven Ritter

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