The Brahms sextets, composed 1858 and 1864 respectively, contain some of the most passionately biographical passages in his output. Two women in the composer’s life, Clara Schumann and Agathe von Siebold, managed to compel the affections of the otherwise taciturn man; and like his revered Romantic mentor, Schumann, Brahms imbedded his feelings anagrammatically into the texts of both works. The sextet medium, moreover, allowed Brahms a great sonority to express his expansive emotions, having a first cello to sing while the other provides a deeply resonant counterpoint. The second sextet is perhaps more optimistically inclined than the first, but they both shimmer with that autumnal farewell to life’s joys that so marks the pages of the Brahms oeuvre.
The Nash Ensemble, whose every recording I have relished to date, scores another memorable inscription, made here at Champs Hills, Pulborough, Sussex, 20-22, December 2006. From the warm opening bars of the B-flat’s Allegro ma non troppo, wherein the cello line states the laendler theme antiphonally answered by the first violin and viola in octaves, we are in the throes of a grand passion, whose sonic range embraces a symphonic gesture or two as well as the intimacies of the string quartet. The D Minor theme-and-variations generates sinewy power, and we recall that Brahms himself was fond enough to make a piano transcription of this movement. Lovely playing from cellos Tim Hugh and Paul Watkins; and the last pages, having already passed through an elfin Scherzo, conclude with references to the sunny D Major Serenade, Op. 11.
The G Major Sextet alludes to both Clara and Agathe, another passionate surge of melody opening its Schubertian weavings, using fourths and fifths to augment the call to Clara, then a motif incorporating all but the “t” in Agathe’s name, the “h” having become “B” natural. The polyphonic excursions merely confirm the composer’s ambiguities about the role of each woman in his labyrinthine love life. The trio of the scherzo becomes quite rustic, a village band who momentarily forget the tragic accents in the little A Minor Gavotte which inspired the movement, though the last page explodes with pent-up fury. The final E Major variation of the misty, chromatic slow movement, Poco Adagio, emanates an especial bliss. The last movement sings most idyllically, the tremolando gestures rife with Schubert, Mozart, and pointing to Holst. Lovely Brahms captured on a well-wrought urn.
— Gary Lemco