Brahms String Sextets - No. 1 in B flat, Op. 18; No. 2 in G, Op. 36. Hausmusik London (Monica Huggett, Pavel Beznosiuk, vns; Roger Chase, Jeremy Watkins, vas; Richard Lester, David Watkins, vcs).
Signum SIGCD013 (76 minutes; DDD).

reviewed by Bernard D. Sherman

Reprinted from Gramophone Early Music

With this release, we now have two period-instrument recordings of the Brahms Sextets and none of the Quartets or Quintets. Of course, it's easy to understand why Hausmusik would want to record these glorious pieces regardless of who had been there first. Besides, in the G-Major Sextet, Op. 36, Hausmusik easily surpasses its competitor (L'Archibudelli, Sony 7464 68252). The difference is obvious from the opening melody. L'Archibudelli's Vera Beths cuts off long notes in a quasi-Baroque manner that lacks strong historical support and is, to my ears, musically unsatisfying. By contrast, Hausmusik's Monica Huggett shapes the long notes (and the larger phrases) beautifully. She does not, in the process, ignore articulation marks; indeed, she makes better sense of them than Beths does.

In general, Hausmusik's performance stands comparison with any recording I've heard of this work, one of Brahms's greatest. The second thematic group lilts and swings, for example, building to a stirring climax. The upper strings do full justice to the third-movement opening, with its richly inflected harmonies and deeply felt emotion. I could continue with such examples if space allowed.

But in Op. 18, while Hausmusik is effective, the older L'Archibudelli recording is finer. In this work, the latter group integrates its highly detailed articulation more convincingly than in Op. 36. In the theme of Op. 18's great slow movement, for example, L'Archibudelli makes sense of the staccato marks, which Hausmusik more or less ignores. L'Archibudelli's performance of the movement has significantly higher voltage in general (generated in part by its faster tempo).

L'Archibudelli also has an advantage in the first movement. Brahms put the word "animato" under the new theme at bar 84, and both ensembles agree that it implies a tempo increase. But how big an increase? That of Hausmusik is the largest I've ever heard, and takes some getting used to, although the effect is passionate. No mental adjustment is needed when listening to L'Archibudelli; it picks up the tempo more subtly but the result is more memorable. These performers make the entry of the new melody feel like a swelling of passion from within the previous musical stream, rather than like a shift to a higher gear.

Still, there is much to admire in Hausmusik's Op. 18, even if the comparison this time favours the competition. Potential buyers making a choice between the two recordings may want to consider the sound quality. That on the Hausmusik disc is clearer and reveals more detail, an advantage in these richly scored masterpieces. Again, though, the disc deserves attention for the performances themselves, especially that of Op. 36.


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