Brahms — String Sextet in Bb Op.18
Allegro ma non troppo
Andante, ma moderato
Scherzo: Allegro molto
Rondo: poco allegretto e grazioso
In choosing to compose for string sextet, Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) was electing to nurture a chamber music oeuvre little cultivated since the two sets of sextets by the Italian classical composer Luigi Boccherini (1743 – 1805) a prolific composer of chamber music: It was however, more likely that Brahms’ reverence for the string quartet genre, and his struggles in that area - he had disposed of numerous attempts at quartet writing - prompted this early chamber work with its additional viola and cello.
He set about composing the sextet in Bb in 1860, and, along with his sextet in G major, written a few years later; it has become one of the best loved works in the chamber music repertoire. In the decades following Brahms’ two works, others followed by writing string sextets, including Antonín Dvořák, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Joachim Raff, Max Reger, Arnold Schoenberg, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Richard Strauss's Sextet from his final opera ‘Capriccio’.
The character of the Allegro ma non troppo 1st movement is prevailingly one of embracing warmth, as established by the 1st cello’s opening phrase marked poco f espressivo ascending before descending in seamless transition to the melody’s repetition by the 1st violin a mere octave higher in a middle register of ‘gemütlich’ warmth. The predominant accompanying material is formed of oscillating quavers and a syncopated rhythm which lends impulse and subtle urgency to the musical line. A tranquillo section - tender and searching - gives way for a second subject characterised by an animato melody of impassioned, ascending leaps, no longer resembling the benignancy of the opening subject, but nevertheless strongly resembling it in its ascending then falling characteristics. Brahms economical but wholly expressive use of his material is ever apparent in the development section where descending motives derived from the 1st subject’s third bar, and significant use of syncopated accompanying rhythms lead to a dramatic build up of tension and energy in combined quavers, triplets and semi-quavers superimposed upon one another. The true climax, however, occurs after an unsuspecting recapitulation disguised by the arresting energy of the syncopations, through which emerges the first theme, but with both violas and 1st cello, before the 1st violin ascends to the highest register of the instrument only to fall back to tenderness and a dolce calmato character once more.
The Andante, ma moderato possesses a poised resolute character in contrast with the impassioned first movement, but as the theme undergoes variation and transformation, the energy and drama grows in intensity with cascades of running scales in the cellos, giving way eventually to amolto espressivo theme resembling, but by no means imitating, the opening material but contrastingly cast in D major, the former having been in D minor.
A light-hearted Scherzo: allegro moderato in F major finds Brahms in an almost Schubertian mood - but boisterously so - concealing the bar lines with lucid accents and tied notes – the Trio even outdoing the Scherzo for sheer exuberance and charm.
Something of the benevolent character of the opening movement returns in the last movement Rondo: poco allegretto e grazioso Again Brahms introduces the 1st cello at the outset, and, although now in 2/4 meter, the songful contour lends a strong connection to the memory of the first movement; in similar vein, so too the 1st violin repeats the melody above a delicate counterpoint in 2nd violin and 1st viola. Episodical in structure, the thematic material between statements of the Rondo theme are sensitively developed from the melodic and rhythmic features generated as if in an inspired stream of consciousness. The concluding music is delicately paced to end the work in reflective yet exuberant character.
Feargus Hetherington 2012