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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Sextet for strings No.1 in B flat major Op.18 (1860) [22:17]
Sextet for strings No.2 in G major Op.36 (1865) [36:46]
Quintet for strings No.1 in F major Op.88 (1882) [25:46]
Quintet for strings No.2 in G major Op.111 (1890) [28:20]
Pierre Fouchenneret (violin) Shuichi Okada (violin) Lise Berthaud (viola) Adrien Boisseau (viola) François Salque (cello) Yan Levionnois (cello)
rec. live 9 January 2018, Théâtre de Coulomniers, France (quintets) 7 March 2018 Maladrerie St Lazare, Beauvais, France (sextets)
Reviewed as a digital download
B RECORDS LBM012 [59:03 + 54:06]

The works on this pair of discs represent the extreme ends of Brahms’ output, with the first sextet one of his earliest masterpieces and the second quintet the work with which the composer announced his retirement (prematurely as it turned out) 30 years later. In between, these two works, Brahms developed considerably as a composer with the result that the sextets, especially the first of them, are much more immediately accessible works than the quintets. That said, the quintets are not as hard nuts to crack as their lack of popularity might suggest.

This recording is volume 2 of a complete set of the Brahms chamber music. I have previously reviewed volumes 1 – review pending – and 9 – Recommended: review – and been greatly impressed by both. The idea behind the project has been to create a core troupe of musicians who were involved in all the live performances from which these recordings derive.

As indicated already, the first of the sextets is Brahms at his most warm and relaxed. Few works by him contain such a constant procession of great melodies. This is Brahms the young Romantic, not the logician.

This is a fairly low-key performance which clearly sees this work as chamber music and not a symphony accidentally scored for sextet. I am sure many will want a riper approach but this view of the work sits well with the overall vision of this Brahms chamber music project and with the other works on this particular volume. Only in the celebrated variations that form the slow movement did I feel the need for a tighter, more dramatic grip on the narrative.

The opening of the second Sextet clearly owes a debt to the extraordinarily intense opening movement of Schubert’s String Quartet D887, also in G major. Fouchenneret, Berthaud and colleagues are completely in tune with this homage. Their opening is whispered and full of pregnant meaning where, for example, the much admired recording led by the Capuçons on Erato 9029588837 – review – is prosaic and the Nash Ensemble (on another much praised recording on Onyx 4019 – review) are positively ungainly. Listen too to the way Fouchenneret et al allow the music to flow naturally toward a climax, with the descending figures on the viola really ringing out. By the time we get to the swinging song of the second subject, I notice the way these performers have been springing the rhythm right from the start. Compared to this, all the other rivals I have heard sound rather flat footed.

I won’t go into detail about the rest of this performance of the second sextet but limit myself to urging the reader to explore it. The effort will be amply rewarded.

I listened to this set as a digital download in 24-bit wav format and the sound is excellent in an unobtrusive way. There is plenty of ambient acoustic and the microphone placing is nicely judged – neither too close nor too remote.

The first of the quintets is a low-key work written in the shadow of the mighty Second Piano Concerto. Where that piece is all grand gestures, the quintet is intimate and confiding. In its own quiet way, it is structurally extremely creative with a middle movement that deftly combines scherzo and slow movement.

The opening movement is all about light and shade and the broad approach to tempo taken by Fouchenneret and friends allows them plenty of scope to capture the many moments where minor key clouds obscure the warm major key sun. The effect is like sunlight through leaves.

The second movement fuses slow movement and scherzo and opens with a theme that bears more than a passing resemblance to that of the equivalent movement of the First Sextet. The melancholy in this later slow movement is simultaneously more inward and filled with more pain. The gentleness with which Fouchenneret and colleagues play the succeeding scherzo-like passage points out continuity rather than contrast, an effect I greatly enjoyed. With each repetition the sadness in the opening section is expanded upon. Conversely the faster section gains in energy but also in dissonance, as if the passion latent in the slower passages is seeking an outlet. Brahms’ handling of longer and shorter phrase lengths is masterly here. After the breathless short phrases of the fast music, the ever longer phrases of the slow music become more and more affecting. Brahms’ scoring for the strings becomes richer, too, as the music proceeds before subsiding into a perfectly poised and resigned cadence at the end. This movement shows us Brahms the quiet revolutionary. The intensity of this final section is yet another example of the extraordinary spirit of this project. Everyone seems to be holding their breath.

The finale, by contrast, is approached in a leisurely spirit rather than the contrapuntal tour de force it becomes in the hands of other performers. I find this rather suits the inward approach taken to the rest of the quintet. As with the rest of their account, the Nash Ensemble are faster and leaner. The Hagen Quartet with Gérard Caussé (Presto/DG special CD 4534202, or download) are more dramatic but seem a little stiff to me.

The opening of the second quintet is an extraordinary feat of scoring for strings. It parallels the way Brahms, in his late piano pieces, was continually experimenting with new sonorities on the piano. The air seems to quiver with alternating notes that gleam with G major sunlight. Anyone who thinks of Brahms as heavy and stolid clearly doesn’t know this opening. The trick to a good performance of this movement is to unify this airy opening with the calmer, more wistful music that follows as part of the second subject group. The unifying thread that the musicians on this recording find is great gentleness. In some of Brahms’ early chamber music what one is hearing very often are symphonies and concertos in chamber music form. Not so here. This is genuine intimate chamber music and it needs handling as such. Listen to the magical haunted stillness with which the first movement development opens on this recording. This is music that draws the listener in if they will allow it.

This is one of those works like the Third Symphony that hovers been major and minor, where every joy is tinged with sadness, every grief has the possibility of some consolation. Overload the subtle, understated longing of the slow movement and it becomes a caricature and unbalances the work as a whole. There is an inward quality that the performers on this recording find effortlessly. This is never going to be music that enjoys widespread popularity but in its muted way it tells us something important about ordinary human life, not the heroic dramas normally associated with the music of the Romantic era. Round about the third minute of the slow movement, the music withdraws to a secluded place that seems to lie equidistant between the late Beethoven quartets and the quartets of Bartók. Fouchenneret and his fellow musicians follow Brahms into this place with playing that is at once intensely focused and completely natural.

The third movement of this second quintet illustrates a general point about rhythm in these subtle works. It is very easy to play this music in very strict rhythm and miss the way Brahms is constantly shifting and playing around with the beat. Loosen up, as the performers do on this disc, and Brahms’ infinite rhythmical variety is revealed. A movement like this one, a classic gentle Brahms intermezzo in lieu of a scherzo, should flow gently, as it does here but with a delicate spring in its step.

The shadows and the light combine in the finale where severe old Brahms springs a last surprise – a real let your hair down kick your shoes off gypsy dance to round off a work which we only realise at that moment was in danger of tumbling into excessive earnestness. This is one of those moments where I was very aware that this was a live recording – that extra kick of adrenaline really counts.

The quintets are works that have been more fortunate in the studio than the concert hall and there are many easily recommendable versions but this account of them is as good and, in many places, better than any. Competition is much stiffer in the sextets but here their version of the second sextet, specifically, is very special indeed.

David McDade

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