Brahms All the Way: The Chamber Music Society Presents His Two Sextets

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society is winding down its season this week, a varied one as usual that has offered everything from solo recitals to large chamber ensembles. Its presentation of the two Brahms Sextets for Strings at the Perelman Theater gave a rare opportunity to hear these extraordinary works in tandem, each in its way a significant marker in Brahms’ early development and each with its suggestive autobiographical clues.

The lines in instrumental chamber music are generally drawn between sonatas (one or two instruments), works for between three and five instruments, and works for six players or more. Go beyond five instruments, and a recital stage begins to look crowded, with the repertory correspondingly thinner. Beethoven’s Septet in E-Flat was among his most popular works, as was Mendelssohn’s youthful Octet, but works for six players were a distinct rarity until Brahms produced his Opp. 18 and 36 for the form. They were at once popular, particularly the First, and their influence could be felt in the works in the same form produced by later nineteenth-century composers, notably the Dvorak Sextet, Op. 48; Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence; and Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.

It’s been suggested that Brahms’ decision to write for six players may have been at least partly influenced by his diffidence in competing with Beethoven in the form he had made uniquely his own, the string quartet. We do know that Brahms discarded some twenty drafts for a string quartet before producing his first published one at the age of forty. Be that as it may, six players are not easier to write for than four, and the skill as well as invention Brahms deploys in utilizing his performers in both his Sextets, particularly the second in G Major, display his formidable powers of coloristic and dynamic balance.

The melodic material of the first two movements of the First Sextet are particularly distinguished, with the deep warmth that is so characteristically Brahmsian. Although it would not be inapt to call the music plush at times, Brahms keeps his inner voices busy, with clipped accents in the violins to stir things up and delicate pizzicatti presaging the close of both the Allegro non troppo first movement and the Poco allegro finale. There are allusions to the Beethoven Septet and other works by Beethoven and Schubert along the way, but there’s never any doubt that Brahms is his own man, and that the voice that would dominate the chamber music of the late nineteenth century is fully present here.

The Second Quartet, composed five years later, is more contrapuntal in nature, and its thematic material, although less straightforwardly lyrical, is no less impressive. Its four movements are closely linked thematically, with intervals of fourths and fifths predominating; at the same time, key signatures seem at times uncentered, and a tremolo in the viola is for a lengthy moment in the first movement the only anchor as bits of melodic argument toss among the other instruments. The Poco adagio third movement, a theme with five variations, is the heart of the work, and if it sometimes looks back toward late Beethoven, it also anticipates the slow movement of Bruckner’s Quintet in F—or, shall we say, it was Bruckner who closely looked at Brahms.

Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner all appear to have had unsatisfactory love lives, in Bruckner’s case reticent to the point of nonexistence. All were lifelong bachelors. Brahms’ youthful passion for Clara Schumann was apparently never consummated, and, although the First Sextet contains no overt reference to her, he did dedicate a piano transcription of its second movement to her. The Second Sextet contains what appears to be a more directly amorous statement in a repeated figure that alludes musically to the singer Agathe von Siebold in its opening movement. If this was intended as a gesture of courtship—Brahms had already dedicated two song cycles to Agathe—he did not endear himself when in an actual letter he told her that he did not wish to “wear fetters.” Agathe promptly broke off their relationship. Music would remain Brahms’ enduring mistress.

The performers included Jaime Laredo and Sharon Robinson of the Laredo-Kalichstein-Robinson Trio; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt of the Dover Quartet, heard in recital at the Perelman last October; Keith Robinson, Sharon’s brother (another sibling, Hal Robinson, is principal bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra); Pamela Frank; and the youthful violist Nokothula Ngwenyama. Sharon Robinson’s cello dominated the First Sextet, assuming what sounded like a solo role at each entrance, while Jaime Laredo’s violin, muted in the first half of the recital, came alive after intermission. These players all have Brahms in their blood, and in giving us both of his String Sextets in one evening—each running roughly forty minutes—they gave us a rare opportunity to see the composer’s youthful mastery maturing in a single format.

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, presenting at the Perelman Theater, May 11, 2018, Broad and Spruce Streets. Johannes Brahms, String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18; String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36. With Jaime Laredo and Pamela Frank, violins; Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Nokothula Ngwenyama, violists; Sharon and Keith Robinson, cellos. 215.569.8080; www.pcmsconcerts.org

About Robert Zaller 67 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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