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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four-Hand Piano Music Vol. 13
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 18 (arranged for piano duet) (1859-60)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 (arranged for piano duet) (1864-65)
Silke-Thora Matthies (piano)
Christian Kohn (piano)
Rec. Clara-Wieck-Auditorium, Sandhausen, Germany, 2-4 Nov 1999. DDD
NAXOS 8.554817 [74:35]

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Brahms was a most accomplished pianist and supported his family financially from an early age playing the piano in dockside bordellos in the port of Hamburg. Furthermore his output for the piano spanned his entire life often making piano reductions of his orchestral, choral and chamber works; many of them for piano-duo to allow them greater accessibility to a much wider audience. Only recently I heard on the radio Brahmsís own piano reduction of his mighty German Requiem.

This Naxos release contains reductions for four-hand piano of Brahmsís first and second String Sextets, which I feel are very welcome additions to the catalogue.

Brahms was the first significant composer to write a String Sextet for a chamber ensemble comprising two violins, two violas and two cellos. The first String Sextet was the Op.18 from 1862 and the second String Sextet Op.36 was completed in 1865. Brahmsís choice of the richly upholstered instrumentation provided by the genre of the String Sextet resulted in a melodic radiance and expressive freedom unmatched by any of his other chamber works.

The String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 18 was written in Brahmsís twenty-ninth year and this work is a fine example of the composer making a significant stride away from his apprenticeship towards maturity. There are clearly some pages in the score that display the influence of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert but as biographer Daniel Gregory Mason points out, ďthe change in point is more striking than the influences it makes room for.Ē The work is Brahmsís first published chamber work without a piano in the score.

The work, especially in the first two movements, betrays Brahmsís turbulent emotions at this time in his life. The first movement marked Allegro ma non troppo is considered to be amongst the most lyrical of all of his opening movements with a Schubertian breadth and ease of expression that is captivating. The slow movement is a series of theme and variations which was a form that Brahms was to use with particular mastery. There is a lšndler-like rhythmic swing in the third movement Scherzo and an expressive Rondo with contrasting sonorities that closes the work.

The String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36, subtitled Agathe, uses both rhythm and musical notation, the notes A-G-A-H-E (forget the T, the "H" is B natural in German notation), to evoke the name of Brahms beloved, Agathe von Siebold, from whom he fled when their marriage seemed expected and impending. Brahms felt remorseful. "I have played the scoundrel toward Agathe," he wrote. However the composition of the Sextet proved cathartic for him. Referring to this composition he said, "I have emancipated myself from my last love". Work on the Sextet probably started some four years before his involvement with Agathe and was completed five years after their break-up. The bulk of the score seems to have been written in 1864 and 1865.

The first movement Allegro non troppo, which opens in a hushed mysterious mood, contains the ĎAgatheí motto as well as a rhythmic motif at the end of the opening theme. The motif suggests the syllabic stress of the name when spoken. This rhythmic motif can also be found in the second movement Scherzo, as well as a lively stomping lšndler-like Trio section. The third movement Poco Adagio was described by the renowned Viennese critic, friend and supporter of Brahms, Eduard Hanslick as "variations on no theme". However careful listening will reveal this non-theme's resemblance to the opening theme of the first movement. The final movement Poco Allegro alternates lively and relaxed episodes, fugal passages and long-lined songs. Emancipation at last from an unquiet conscience, perhaps?

German born duo Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Kohn have been performing together as a partnership for almost twenty years and seem very much at one with this repertoire. It is amazing how listening to the duo playing these arrangements for four-hand piano manages to uncover so many new and exciting insights into the scores.

Their playing really helps to express the easy-going lyricism of the Op. 18 String Sextet. I especially liked the way the duo portray the yearning ecstasy in the opening movement and the energy and good humour of the Scherzo. The ethereal nature of the Op. 36 String Sextet is vividly interpreted. The duoís interpretation of the contrasting technical and emotional demands of the Poco allegro closing movement is particularly impressive.

It is a puzzle why these recordings which were made in November 1999 have only been released now in early 2005; however with playing as fine as this it has been well worth the wait. It is hard to fault the sound quality from the Naxos engineers. The booklet notes are fairly interesting and reasonably informative.

The playing of Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Kohn demands admiration. This is another collectable volume from Naxos in their impressive series of Brahmsís four hand piano music.

Michael Cookson

see also Review by Colin Clarke


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