BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major; String Sextet No. 2 in G Major – Prazak Q./ Petr Homan, viola/ Vladimir Fortin, cello – Praga Digitals

BRAHMS: String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18; String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 – Prazak Quartet/ Petr Homan, viola/ Vladimir Fortin, cello – Praga Digitals multichannel SACD PRD/DSD 250 297, 74:58 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] (1/14/14) ****:

Inspired by Mendelssohn’s chamber works, Johannes Brahms proceeded to define the sextet form between 1860-1865. His two glorious String Sextets possess a rare sweetness, the full variety of colors of both summer and autumn and the power and brilliance of a string orchestra. His works in turn inspired many later composers, most notably Reger and Schoenberg.

The 1860 B-flat Major Sextet, conceived in Hamburg and completed in Vienna, remains a majestic and nostalgic work, originally hailed by critics as “Spring Sextet” as though in homage to Schumann, the musical godfather of Brahms. The innate power of the two low cellos appealed to Brahms, and the cello does indeed introduce the first of three themes – in the Brahms ploy of cross-rhythms – of the epic Allegro ma non troppo followed by the other Brahms trump card in triplets. The singular warmth of the affect comes through beautifully in this rendition by the Prazak Quartet and selected friends, recorded 12-14 June 2013. The various timbres and colors flow back and forth, the melodic kernels played off each other in marvelous pairings of instruments, the cellos often doubling for the violins in symphonic texture. The occasional modulation to the sub-dominant or sub-mediant bears the earmarks of the Brahms love of Schubert, both of whom reign as chamber music masters.

The D Minor Theme and Variations presents a rather archaic, martial sound, a minor-key theme in the viola and six variants, of which the fourth brings the light of D Major. Brahms though enough of this passionate movement to set it for solo keyboard as well. The ensemble’s pizzicato effects prove startlingly clear. Cellos Kanka and Fortin make their hefty presence known, and the layering effects prove as rich as they are decorative. The rustic, impulsively explosive Scherzo in F Major bears the stamp of (hunting horn) Haydn, who will no less influence the Rondo last movement. The Viennese aspects of the 2/4 Allegretto e grazioso do homage to Schubert as well. Brahms once more bestows opening melodic honors to the cello. The Prazak take the last movement briskly, but the tone of violins Pavel Hula and Vlastimil Holek remains captivating. The coda is marked animato poco a poco piu that allows for a blaze of glory, an opportunity the Prazak ensemble exploits to pour advantage.

The G Major Sextet of Brahms comes close to the programmatic influences revealed in Schumann and Schoenberg, having any number of musical anagrams related to soprano Agathe von Siebold, briefly engaged (in 1858) to Brahms. “Here is where I tore myself free of my last love,” confessed Brahms. That obscure reference fits Clara Schumann, whose persona evolves in the rising motif of the first movement and in passing anagrams as well. The cello once more rises to the melodic occasion in the expansive Allegro non troppo first movement. The use of major thirds, the fifth (and perfect fourth) at the opening of the E Minor Poco adagio third movement, led Karl Geiringer to proclaim “Brahms the Ambiguous” insofar as his “Classical” status in music history. What passes for a Scherzo presents us a G Minor assemblage of interior musings played somberly until its Trio section – Presto giocoso – justifies its title. Gorgeous ensemble here from the Prazak and their intimates, a festive village-band affect of the first order. A melancholy reserve dominates most of the E Minor Adagio movement, a theme-and-variations that erupts into occasional (contrapuntal) fury. Admittedly, the passing dissonances of this emotionally wrought movement do invoke “the music of the future” in Zemlinsky and Berg. A “tremulous vitality” marks the last movement, Poco allegro, music that projects a warm comradeship among the six instruments, polyphonically jovial yet restrained in that “free but lonesome” affect that infiltrates much of the Brahms oeuvre.

Deeply sonorous and musically alert, these polished renditions of the Brahms two sextets should grace anyone’s chamber music collection in any of the three options provided.

—Gary Lemco

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