Phil’s Classical Reviews – Brahms Sextets

Phil's Classical Reviews
March 2017
by Phil Muse

Brahms: The String Sextets -Cypress String Quartet, with Barry Shiffman, viola; Zuill Bailey, cello (Avie)

These recordings were made before a live studio audience on 26-30 April 2016, just before the Cypress String Quartet, consisting of Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello, made their farewell appearances at the Sitka Summer Music Festival and their own “Beethoven in the City” concerts at various San Francisco venues. In a sense, however, these two Brahms sextets, symphonic in scope and breadth (76 minutes combined) and filled with a wide range of emotions, make for an even more satisfying valedictory.

The two sextets contain some of Brahms’ most attractive and deeply affecting music. Early-on, he must have realized the advantages in terms of enriched harmony that he could realize by adding an additonal viola and cello to the basic string quartet, particularly in his handling of the first cello, freed from its bass role and allowed to take the lead in the first theme of the opening Allegro of Sextet No. 1 in B-flat, Op. 18. This movement has a noticeably jaunty, adventuresome mood, reflecting the heady optimism of youth.

The slow movement, an Andante, takes its theme from the famous bass line from the Baroque era known as “La Folia.” Variations follow one another with increasing rapidity, becoming almost demonic in mood before finally subsiding. Brahms’ subtle and masterful writing for the two violas in Variation 6 is but one highlight here. An energetic Scherzo and its dance-like Trio are succeeded by a lyrical Rondo finale that booklet annotator Jan Swafford considers to be “like a re-imagining of the first movement.”

As effective as the B-flat Sextet is, Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 is more compelling. As Swafford puts it, “The B-flat is four winning and lovely movements, but there is no sense among them of an unfolding story,” whereas four years later, Brahms had discovered that “a whole piece of music should be a unified emotional narrative.”

A lot had happened to him, as man and composer, in the intervening years, including a failed love affair with one Agathe Siebold, for which he assuaged his feelings with an opening melody in which the notes spell out her name: A-G-A-H-E (where H is standard German notation for the key of B natural), with a suspended D beneath the melody standing for the missing T in her name and a final three-note pattern A-D-E (ade, “farewell”) at the end.

There is a certain confessional mood at work in this opening movement, with shifting tonalities adding ambiguity and a second subject of remarkable beauty. The next movement, Allegro non troppo, is a Scherzo with a vigorous Trio. It is succeeded by the slow movement, a Poco Adagio that has an unusual emotional range. It is in the form of set of variations in the relative key of E minor, sometimes keening, at other times almost bleak, before a mood of gentle wistfulness, warmth, and beauty asserts itself atthe end. A coda in a very positive vein leads naturally into the Poco Allegro finale, songlike and joyful. As the Cypress Quartet and their buddies, violist Barry Shiffman and cellist Zuill Bailey, realize it, the G major sextet emerges as a complete human and musical experience, replete with melodies that are worth dying for.

Phil Muse
March 2017