brahms     the string quintets & sextets

in collaboration with
FCL 2012

Audiophile Audition — 5 star review!

“The warmth of the Italian sun where [Brahms] was vacationing finds its way into the genial breezes of this piece [String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 111] that makes it one of the greatest he ever penned, though even here we must be cautious in our enthusiasm, and neither of the two quintets ranks with his most popular chamber pieces. Sometimes I think people look for too much in these two works, and rather than being overly-analytical should simply sit back and enjoy. The Alexander certainly seem to be enjoying themselves in these gracious and highly-involved accounts recorded in California with terrific sound. … mandatory for anyone who cares about the composer, and recordings like this might just bring new and previously unnoticed pleasures to light.”
— Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition  (April 2014, FCL 2012 Brahms String Quintets & Sextets)

“This review is going to be short, because so highly-acclaimed is this disc that my opinion isn’t particularly important, if ever it was. Simply put, after delighting the critical establishment with some marvelous Piano Quintets, the Alexander String Quartet and friends turn in an unbelievable set of the Brahms Sextets and Quintets for Strings. Violist Toby Appel joins the Quartet throughout the program and easily reminds me how beautiful an instrument the viola can be. Nor is cellist David Requiro a mere guest artist. Folks, this is what chamber music is about! Deeply moving, highly involved playing is backed by exceptional sound quality that is warm and shows the genuine partnership between the players. … After 30 years, the Alexander String Quartet is demanding that we take a listen, just as after all this time, Brahms can still surprise us. These are deeply personal works in equally personal performances. Don’t miss them.” — Brian Wigman, Classical Net
(2014, FCL 2012 Brahms String Quintets & Sextets)

“The Alexander Quartet never disappoint on disc, and they’re spectacularly good here. Listening to them ease into the the waltzing second subject of the Bb Sextet’s opening movement, or hearing guest violist Toby Appel sing out the Andante’s variation theme is a bit like slipping one’s toes into a warm bath. Everything’s marvellous – the intonation flawless, the tempi judged to perfection. Wallow in the good natured finale, and enjoy the glorious swelling in the coda, as if we’re suddenly listening to a chamber orchestra. … There’s even greater fluency in the two mature String Quintets… A zesty Vivace closes proceedings in uplifting style, the music’s generosity of spirit never called into question. A life-enhancing set, nicely-recorded and well annotated.” — Graham Rickson, The Arts Desk
(May 2014, FCL 2012 Brahms String Quintets & Sextets)

Excerpt from liner notes by Eric Bromberger

Every account of Brahms’ life begins with the grim fact that the Brahms family lived in near-poverty: the boy grew up in the slums of Hamburg, and he spent his formative years surrounded by the squalor of a rough port city. And so it is easy to overlook the fact that Brahms’ father was a professional musician whose son grew up in a fairly sophisticated musical environment. Johann Jakob Brahms may have been a jack-of-all-trades as a musician (he played the flute, bugle, and horn, among other instruments), but he was a good enough doublebass player that he eventually became a member of the Hamburg Philharmonic. He was anxious that his son play a more “practical” instrument than the doublebass, and so he had the boy take violin and cello lessons. Johannes acquired a rudimentary proficiency on both those instruments, but he quickly made clear that he wanted no part of them. He wanted to play the piano, and over the next two decades Brahms would become — if not a first-rank virtuoso pianist — then at least a very, very good one.

The boy may have been familiar with the sound of stringed instruments from the moment of his birth, and he may have learned to play them, but as a composer he was never fully comfortable writing for them. Brahms apparently wrote and rejected as many as twenty string quartets before he felt ready to publish one, and he even put off writing his first sonata for violin until after the premiere of his much-delayed First Symphony. Late in his career, after completing his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Brahms grumbled to Clara Schumann that he should “have handed on the idea to someone who knows the violin better than I do.” Given these doubts, it was natural that Brahms should turn to string-playing friends such as violinist Joseph Joachim and cellist Robert Hausmann, who could advise him on such matters as bowing, phrasing, and the practicality of his writing. Sometimes Brahms took their advice, sometimes he did not. Brahms wrote some of the finest music ever composed for stringed instruments, but writing for them never ceased to be a struggle for him. This recording offers Brahms’ four compositions for large string ensembles: the two sextets, composed when Brahms was still a young man (at ages 27 and 32), and the two quintets, written during the years of his artistic maturity (at ages 49 and 57).  [ ... ]

Sextet for Strings in B-flat Major, Opus 18
We so automatically identify Brahms with Vienna that it is easy to forget that he did not move there until he was nearly 30. By that time he had already written a great deal of music, and some of the best of these early works were composed while he was a court musician in Detmold. About 100 miles southwest of Hamburg, Detmold was a cultured court, much devoted to music, and for three seasons (1857–59) Brahms served as a court musician there. These years were quite productive for him musically. With a chorus, orchestra, and good solo performers at his disposal, Brahms could have his music performed immediately and could test his ideas. From these years came his two serenades for orchestra, the first two piano quartets, several choral works, and the completion of his First Piano Concerto.

It was during his final year at Detmold that Brahms began his Sextet in B-flat Major, completing it in 1860. Brahms is sometimes credited with “inventing” the string sextet (two violins, two violas, two cellos), but that is not true — Boccherini and others had written for this combination of instruments earlier. But Brahms’ two examples are the first great works in the form, and they remain — with Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Schoenberg’s Verklaerte Nacht — the core of the slim repertory for this ensemble. Many have noted that Brahms’ Sextet in B-flat Major shares some of the same relaxed spirit as his Serenade No. 1 in D Major, premiered in Detmold in the same year he completed the sextet. It is worth noting that Brahms — reluctant to write for orchestra — had originally scored that serenade for winds and a string quartet. Perhaps writing for so generously proportioned a chamber ensemble encouraged Brahms to write for an unusually large string ensemble. Perhaps he did not feel ready to take on the formidable challenge of the string quartet. In any case, Brahms added two more instruments to the string quartet and then took full advantage of the larger sonority and wider opportunities they made available.   [ ... ]


More Brahms:

Brahms & Schumann Piano Quintets

In Friendship


The Brahms Project

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ALSO SEE (more Brahms below):
Brahms & Schumann Piano Quintets

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String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 18 (1860)

1  Allegro ma non troppo
2  Andante, ma moderato
3  Scherzo. Allegro molto –
    Trio. Animato –
    Coda. Più animato
4  Rondo. Poco Allegretto e grazioso

String Sextet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 36 (1864 – 65)

5  Allegro non troppo
6  Scherzo.
    Allegro non troppo –
    Presto giocoso –
    Tempo primo
7  Poco Adagio
8  Poco Allegro

    Alexander String Quartet
    Toby Appel, viola I  (Op. 18);
            viola II  (Op. 36)
    David Requiro, cello I  (Op. 36);
            cello II  (Op. 18)


String Quintet No. 1 in
F Major, Op. 88 (1882)

1 Allegro non troppo
    ma con brio
2 Grave ed appassionato –
    Allegretto vivace – Tempo I –
    Presto – Tempo I
3 Allegro energico – Presto

String Quintet No. 2 in
G Major, Op. 111 (1890)

4 Allegro non troppo,
    ma con brio
5 Adagio
6 Un poco Allegretto
7 Vivace ma non troppo presto

    Alexander String Quartet
    Toby Appel, viola I  (Op. 88);
            viola II  (Op. 111)

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“In svelte and subtle recordings that capture every delicate strand of Brahms’ masterly writing for his chamber resources, these are among the finest recordings that these masterworks have ever enjoyed; the Alexander String Quartet and their associates have the full measure of the music here.”

— Barry Forshaw, Classical CD Choice
(May 2014, FCL 2012 Brahms Schumann String Quintets & Sextets)

“It is almost as if this Quartet and their additional players for these Quintets and Sextets visualize the music as if it were a modern construction by Bartók or Stravinsky, and then work to modify the line according to those lights. What is amazing, then, is not that their performances are exciting and dynamic but that they still work within the parameters of Romantic-era music.... An excellent album…and well worth acquiring. The Quintets alone will simply blow you away.”

— Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare Magazine
(Feb. 2014, FCL 2012 Brahms String Quintets & Sextets)

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More Brahms:
Brahms & Schumann Piano Quintets
In Friendship

The Brahms Project

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