String Sextet No.1 in B flat Op.18

Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)
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Composer: Johannes Brahms (b. 1833 - d. 1897)

Performance date: 04/07/2015

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1860

Duration: 00:37:41

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTÉ lyric fm

Instrumentation: 2vn, 2va, 2vc

Instrumentation Category:Sextet

Artists: Natalie Clein - [cello]
Marc Coppey - [cello]
Lilli Maijala - [viola]
Brett Dean - [viola]
Chloë Hanslip - [violin]
Dmitri Sitovetsky - [violin]

We do well to honour
such music, and to love the genius and nobility of heart that went into its

This magnificently lyrical work is one of Brahms’
best-loved chamber works, one where he can luxuriate in the richly romantic
textures made possible by the two extra lower strings. String sextet was a
choice of medium that side-stepped his apprehensions about composing
symphonies, because of what he famously called the tramp of giants behind him; it also evaded facing up to the
most essential chamber music medium of all, the string quartet. In fact he had
been writing string quartets all along, but he did not let one out until some
twenty attempts had been confined to oblivion. He claimed to have papered the
walls and ceiling of his room in Hamburg
with his discarded scores. So in the 1860s he concentrated on acoustically
richer chamber mediums that happened to be less thunderous with the tramp of
giants – string sextets, strings with piano and a horn trio.

Brahms often consulted his good friend the star
violinist and composer, Joseph Joachim, when writing for strings. He sent
Joachim the first draft of his score with a typically downbeat note: I’m afraid that as I’ve tarried so long over
the piece, your expectations will not have been raised! But since God makes all
things possible, I am sending you the parts, in case the Rondo should strike
your fancy…I look forward to being invited soon to a rehearsal. However, if you
don’t like the piece, then by all means send it back to me.
Joachim made
some suggestions that Brahms accepted, including assigning the opening
statement of the first movement’s theme to the first cello rather than to the
first violin and, indeed, at times it seems that it is the cello rather than
the violin leads the ensemble.

The extra cello makes a huge difference as the second
cello can be entrusted with the bass line while the first cello can take wing
with one soaring melody after another. From the first bar we know we are in one
version of lyrical heaven. Out of the cadence of this deliciously mellow theme
grows a second idea accompanied by pizzicato responses from viola and cello
leading in turn to another gorgeous melody with an undulating accompaniment. As
Brahms grew older he tended to rein in his melodic genius, but here he is still
in his twenties, hotly pursued by the beauties of his Hamburg Frauenchor, and he allows his romantic
spirit to flow unchecked. It is also the spirit of the Ländler, the slow waltz of the Austrian countryside that inevitably
recalls Schubert’s bitter-sweet music.

The slow movement was the result of Brahms’ intense
study of classical and baroque forms, and is an early example of his brilliant
use of variation form. But despite his rigid adherence to the theme’s
proportions, his variations so transform the theme and are so rich in their
contrasted sonorities, that they completely overwhelm the strictness of the
form. The theme itself is in D minor, giving it an air of stern nobility, which
is not entirely dispelled until the wonderful fourth variation.

The Scherzo
is a brief and high-spirited country dance with an irresistible rhythm; the trio is even briefer and fierier and
returns in the coda to bring the dance to an end. It takes genius to come up
with a Finale that crowns a work like
this and Brahms, like the other great masters, is able for this. He gives us an
unhurried, melodically generous Rondo
that cleverly brings back the mood of the first movement, reminding us again of
Schubert, his love of the countryside and his edge of sadness, and that feeling
that if only the music could keep playing maybe the sadness could be overcome.
Brahms shows us his command of every mood, lyrical, rustic, graceful, sad,
dramatic, clever, witty, romantic and leaving us breathless at the end.