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BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1; String Sextet No. 2 – Barry Sullivan, viola/ Zuill Bailey, cello/ Cypress String Quartet – Avie

For their last recording, the Cypress Quartet invites guests to share the music of Brahms.

BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18; String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 – Barry Sullivan, viola/ Zuill Bailey, cello/ Cypress String Quartet – Avie AV2294, 76:50 (1/6/17) (Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] *****
The two Brahms sextets (1862 and 1864, respectively) enjoy a status that renders them “immune” from invidious comparison with works by Beethoven. Spohr and Boccherini had explored the medium; and in the case of Brahms, his B-flat Sextet made an immediate, favorable impression upon mentors Joseph Joachim and Clara Schumann. The second of the sextets exhibits even more internal unity than the first. Both sextets convey a degree of melancholy, each in its own way: the B-flat projects a first movement rife with nostalgia; the G Major – much in the manner of Schumann’s penchant for musical anagrams – casts a sad farewell to Agathe von Siebold, a singer from Goettingen to whom Brahms had been engaged until he wrote a letter to the effect that he “could not endure living in chains.”
The patented Brahms sonority ushers forth at the opening of the B-flat Sextet, whose sonata-form rings with plaintive melodies that exploit the warm sonority of the pair of cellos, Jennifer Kloetzel and Zuill Bailey. The alternation of major and minor modes no less defines the Brahms developmental ethos, and Cecily Ward’s upper violin line often intertwines with or plays against the vibrant pedal in the lower strings. By way of a series of sequences, Brahms extends the internal dialogues so that they encroach upon the recapitulation. The various harmonic shifts and rhythmic intricacies – three against four – look well to Schubert as a model, a tendency that informs much of the Brahms chamber works. When the plangent viola work (Ethan Filner and Barry Shiffman) enters late, the effect quite grips us with the lachrymose element in Brahms.

The d minor Andante ma non troppo, set as a theme and six variations by the viola, has had an equally potent performance life as a movement for solo piano. Violins Cecily Ward and Tom Stone set an intensely resolute tone for this procession, marked by severe, dramatic accents in the low strings. Imitative of Corelli’s La Folia, the layered variants achieve an archaic, plastic continuity that Brahms would exploit later in life, in his e minor Symphony.  The variant in “bagpipe” sonorities casts an otherworldly haze, delicate and eldritch, at once.  The playful Scherzo has an element of impish Mendelssohn in its gypsy tenor. The ensemble gives us truly lusty realization of the counter-theme. The finale: Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso assumes a cello-led melody in a Schubert style that adumbrates the last movement of the B-flat Piano Concerto. The long drones in the bass line add a rustic girth to the plangent lyricism of the whole.

Brahms conceived his second string sextet for a Vienna premiere in May 1865. Brahms had composed several sets of songs for Agathe von Siebold, and a budding romance indicated intentions to marry, which Brahms thwarted. So, imitating Schumann, Brahms embedded key signatures bid farewell (A-D-E, that is Ade!) to Agathe, the two violins’ spelling out her name in much the same spirit as Schumann had exploited his “Clara” theme. The interval of the rising fifth permeates the four movements, but no less ubiquitous are fourths and rising half-steps separated by one whole step. The fine melody that occupies the Allegro non troppo gravitates between G Major and E-flat, with viola tremolos on G and F-sharp that obstinately induce a subtle anguish to the proceedings. This pattern of alternating fourths and fifths invests the minor-mode Scherzo, in the accompaniment, here in 2/4 rhythm that likes to shift into ¾ in the Trio. The Brahms capacity for “symphonic” (in canon) textures becomes a rich, albeit melancholy broth that plays on the “farewell” motif. The sudden gush of ¾ gypsy energy laughs but smiles no more. The violas – Ethan Filner and Barry Shiffman – contribute a distinctly haunted sound to this ghostly evocation. The superheated coda may be marked Presto giocoso, but the tenor of this performance eschews the jollity.

The theme of the Poco adagio third movement leaps in fourths rather than fifths, but the keening, even bleak, sensibility of the music has the same, effective valediction. Dense and contrapuntal in the manner of late Bach, the music posits another theme and (five) variations and coda. The intimations of this movement for the Second Viennese School lie well within the parameters of the late Brahms piano music. Those laconic compositions – “old bachelor music” – seem an extension of this sextet’s aesthetic, in which Brahms claimed to have “freed myself from my last love.”  The last movement, combining rondo and sonata a la Haydn, has a long-delayed sense of emotional resolution, if not joy.  The first, stormy six measures provide a kind of through-composed motif that appears in varying harmonies and rhythmic guises. The Cypress Quartet and associates deliver a shimmering, often viscerally moving version of the Brahms ethos, tragic, resigned, and grimly heroic.

This live recording (26-30 April 2016) represents the last such project from the to-be-dissolved Cypress String Quartet (estab. 1996), completing its valedictory season, after twenty years.

—Gary Lemco

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