Alexander String Quartet / Toby Appel / David Requiro

Brahms: The String Quintets & Sextets

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The chamber works of Brahms repay technical expertise, certainly, but even more so they demand a certain capacity on the part of the players for wrestling with the considerable intellectual challenges contained therein. The Alexander String Quartet, based in San Francisco, CA, and recorded on the small but appropriately named Foghorn Classics label, displays that capacity on this two-CD collection of Brahms' sextets and quintets for strings, none of them terribly commonly played outside the circles of chamber music. That neglect is especially hard to understand in the case of the two late string quintets, one of which, the String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 111, was announced by Brahms as his last work (clarinet chamber music later changed his plans). The superficial cause is the seemingly lightweight nature of the thematic material. But hear the way the innocent opening theme of the G major quintet's first movement almost immediately becomes ensnared in extreme complexities, and the way the Alexander group (the two additional players on the album are seamlessly integrated) brings out the depth of the whole. Throughout, the group's way with the intellectual-emotional dynamics of Brahms is exceptionally good; the musicians just seem to have the music on their fingertips and to be submerged in it. There are warmer-sounding quartets, and the church acoustic adds to the chill, but those who love the composer's chamber works will find exceptional performances here.

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