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London Concertante

Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 2 in G, Op. 36 (1865) [37’11].
Arnold SCHÖNBERG (1874-1951)

Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 (original sextet version, 1889) [29’39].
London Concertante.
Rec. St Edward the Confessor Church, Mottingham, on 9th-11th June 2003. DDD
CMG CMG011 [66’50]

There is much to admire in the London Concertante’s way with Brahms. The group plays with a warmth that is entirely appropriate to these two works. Unfortunately the rather swimmy acoustic means that focus can be lost (try the cello line at 5’06 in the first movement); but alas it does not necessarily mean that the players’ warmth is added to.

The Brahms is full of pluses being balanced by minuses, and in the end unfortunately the debit side wins out. The Scherzo begins dark and shady (as indeed it should) and the players listen well to each other. But the scampering figures sound decidedly anaemic and there is a loss of momentum as the argument is not elucidated with sufficient grasp of the underlying musical proceedings. The Poco Adagio fares better, entering a more intimate world and the near-stasis around the two-minute mark is impressive. Yet the music seems to drift rather than anything else – clearly players of more maturity are called for. If the finale attempts to make amends (it is by far the best movement) with its gentle, glowing inner parts and scampering violins, it cannot fully erase memories of the earlier parts of the performance. For a satisfying account (on period instruments), try Hausmusik on Signum SIGCD013 .

The Brahms Sextet is accompanied by brief booklet notes by the London Concertante’s leader, Andy Summerhayes. Verklärte Nacht is given no annotation whatsoever, save for a translation by Sonya Grist (presumably a relation of the first cellist, Chris Grist) of Richard Dehmel’s poem, ‘Verklärte Nacht’ – the original German is not provided. London Concertante give a better account of Schoenberg than they did the Brahms. Their predominantly lyrical stance leads to many oases of peace and many tender, melancholic half-lights. The group still does not appear to be fully ‘inside’ the work, however – the music fails to blossom at, say, 15’23. Tenderness is frequently evident in this account, but the fire and glow of this late-Romantic masterwork is lost. The final pages are insubstantial, the web of sound sketchy and the first violin off-puttingly shrill. The lack of repose is a shame. For a different type of experience, go back through the years to the Hollywood Quartet’s early ’fifties version, where the quartet was joined by Alvin Dinkin and Kurt Reher on Testament SBT1031 (generously coupled with the Schubert String Quintet in C, D956, to give a playing time of 73 glorious minutes).

Not really a recommendable issue, then, despite some nice moments, especially in the Brahms. Unless it is this specific coupling you require (entirely logical, given Schoenberg’s admiration for Brahms), it is best to look elsewhere.

Colin Clarke

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