Brahms: String Sextets

Belcea Quartet / Jean-Guihen Queyras / Tabea Zimmermann

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Brahms: String Sextets Review

by James Manheim

Brahms' two string sextets, with an extra viola and cello added to the conventional string quartet, were early works; the String Sextet No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 18, was begun in the late 1850s. Brahms is said to have written them as a preparatory exercise for the more "mature" string quartet genres, which he would take up later, but in fact, these are pioneering works that inspired major composers over the next century (and had only Boccherini and Spohr as forerunners). They have been popular on recordings, and the listeners have many good ones to choose from, but this 2022 release by the Belcea Quartet, with violist Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, vaults to the top levels of the list. The ensemble performed the works together for some time before recording them in 2021, and the group's coordination is exceptional. The players get the broad harmonic paths of the young Brahms, less subtle than in his later works but hugely compelling when done right. Consider the twists and turns of the Scherzo from the first sextet, which holds little appeal if played blankly; here, the work keeps one on the edge of one's seat with its sudden acceleration in the Trio of the Scherzo. The Alpha label's sound from the Vienna Konzerthaus (apparently it is the Mozartsaal, although this is not indicated) is ideal; it is precise yet resonant. A very strong outing from a quartet that is among the most consistent in the field.

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