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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op 18 [37:18]
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op 36 [42:47]
Intermezzo, Op. 18, No. 2 (arr. for string sextet by John Fadial) [7:12]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo Brillante, D895 (arr. for string sextet by John Fadial) [15:15]
Stanislas Sextet
rec. live, 2006-16
FORGOTTEN RECORDS FR1418/9 [2 CDs: 102:37]

The Stanislas Sextet comprises of the Stanislas Quartet, augmented by two American musicians, the violinist and viola player John Fadial and the cellist Beth Vanderborgh. I'm very familiar with the Quartet from their recordings of the Ropartz String Quartets and their more recent cycle of those by Henri Sauguet, the latter of which I reviewed only a few months ago (review). They were founded in 1984. Ten years later in 1994 they got together with Fadial and Vanderborgh in Nancy, France, to explore the sextet repertoire. The result was a concert two years later in the Salle Poirel, Nancy followed by an American tour. Since that time, they've performed on a regular basis on both sides of the Atlantic. In October 2006 and 2009 they had a residency at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. This release captures them in live concerts given between 2006 and 2016. John Fadial's two arrangements were performed in Nancy in May 2016 as part of their twentieth anniversary celebrations.

With the shadows of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert looming large, Brahms deferred writing for the string quartet in his twenties until much later. Instead, he opted for the string sextet as a form which carried far less historical baggage. The B flat Sextet, Op 18 dates from 1860; the G major Op 36, followed five years later.

The Stanislas Sextet fully capture the youthful ardour and passion of the Op. 18. The composer had fallen in love with Clara Schumann, but their relationship was never consummated. He dedicated a piano transcription of the second movement to her. In this performance the dark, world-weary second movement theme on the viola ushers in some finely characterized variations, capped off with an exquisite coda. The Scherzo's rustic mien is emphasized. The finale is sunny and good-natured.

No. 2 in G major, Op.36 isn't as melodically generous as its predecessor and is more serious in demeanour. I've always felt that it doesn't reveal its secrets as easily. Maybe the more introverted nature of the music reflects the composer’s personal situation at the time. Brahms had brought closure to a failed relationship with Agathe von Seibold, whom he’d met in 1858. He seemed to lack the ability to commit himself in relationships, which led to the affair ending unhappily and he remained single for the rest of his life. He wove the letters of Agathe’s name into the second theme of this opening movement, afterwards declaring to a friend “I have freed myself from my last love”. The Stanislas Sextet bring buoyancy to the pizzicato accompaniment of the Scherzo second movement. The Adagio is suffused with longing and sadness, before a finale of animated restless energy.

John Fadial demonstrates that he's a more than competent and highly imaginative arranger, and we are treated to two of his efforts. Whilst I could imagine the Brahms Intermezzo adapting well, I approached Schubert's Rondo Brillant with a certain amount of scepticism. My doubts proved unfounded; the arrangement is very effective. I have to admit that I actually prefer the Brahms Intermezzo, Op. 118, No. 2 in this incarnation than in its original piano version; it seems almost tailor made for this treatment.  I applaud John Fadial's efforts in further augmenting the string sextet repertoire, which isn't exactly brimming over.

Documenting various occasions, these live performances emerge as clear and vibrant, and withstand close scrutiny. Extraneous noise from the audience is minimal; applause has been retained. Forgotten Records have provided a brief biography of the ensemble in French and English. All told, these vibrant readings are well worth your attention.

Stephen Greenbank

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