"The Nash Ensemble’s latest CD release of Brahms’ Sextets No. 1 (op. 18) and No. 2 (op. 36) once again leads the way with an energetic, brilliant and deeply atmospheric performance.
On almost every level they impress. From the tightness of their ensemble to the brilliance of their sound, these six dynamic performers achieve sparkle and delight. The Onyx label has certainly selected the best: this recording is one to be marvelled at and envied.
String Sextets No. 1 and No. 2 occupy an important place in Brahms’ repertoire. Composed early in his career (1858 and 1864), they were the first chamber works to be written without the inclusion of a piano. In choosing the string sextet (rather than the more common quartet), Brahms was attracted by the full lyrical and melodic potential an extra viola and cello could offer: with this scoring, the lower lines could maintain their traditional role whilst also contesting for the melody. Certainly these sextets challenge the full extent of technique and demand the equal contribution of each player - traits which Brahms passionately valued.
The first movement of the String Sextet No. 1 is marked by the elegance of the Nash Ensemble’s playing. Their opening is dignified, allowing space for the momentum of Brahms’ antiphonal writing between the first violin and first cello to emerge. The intense and rich textures that follow are matched by the sonorous and brilliant sound of the Nash Ensemble. But what excites me most is the driving force of the second movement. The opening theme is relentless while the following stormy variations show off the virtuosic playing of both the violas (Lawrence Power and Philip Dukes) and cellos (Paul Watkins and Tim Hugh). A little treat is followed in the Scherzo: Allegro molto which lives up to its name - the Allegro is certainly fast but skilfully controlled. Ensemble is everything for these Nash players. It comes as no surprise then that the final movement, scored in the more conventional style of a quartet, is equally delightful and ends the work with an exciting viola flourish.
Brahms’ Second String Sextet is of another mood altogether but is just as accomplished as the first. The slow trill from the viola hints from the start at the darker nature of this work. A sense of foreboding is also marked by the emergence of the theme which appears in unison octaves: it hints at Brahms’ personal despair following the agony of his failed romances of both Agathe von Siebold and Clara Schumann. The seamless transitions between the contrasting (and juxtaposed) troubled and animated passages are impressive. However, the real highlight for me is the stylish trio section in the second movement. This is performed with zest, displaying the full finesse of the Nash Ensemble. Occasionally it is difficult to hear the middle register pizzicatos of the opening and final sections, but this is a small consideration.
The Nash Ensemble beautifully encapsulates the different characters of each of the five variations. They present a broad scope of dynamic colour with careful negotiation of the contrapuntal passages in the third variation.
A final testament to the Nash’s talent comes with the closing movement. Its buoyant tempo and rapid semi-quaver passages are tackled with ease and each player with their boundless energy drives the piece to a close. Final credit goes to the sound engineer Simon Haram, who kept even the lowest of registers audible.
An outstanding performance from the Nash Ensemble, who retain their title as one of Britain’s finest chamber groups." *****
MusicalCriticism.com - 28 May 2007
"The Nash Ensemble’s performances of the two Brahms Sextets join the list of the best available on disc. The playing is warm and fine-grained, the shared sense of purpose is a pleasure too. At times their approach is almost too homogeneous, the individual string lines blended into a wonderfully flexible but slightly impersonal texture, and a bit more individuality to each of the parts and an airier texture might have given the playing a more distinctive character. But that’s nit-picking. These are among Brahms’s most approachable chamber works, and whether or not one accepts the thesis in the sleeve notes about their significance in charting his faltering relationships with Clara Schumann and Agathe von Siebold, the Nash capture the youthful appeal vividly, with the solo viola and cello playing, from Lawrence Power and Paul Watkins respectively, a constant pleasure.
The only puzzle is the cover photograph, which shows a group of penguins (specifically, for those like me who care about such things, they are Humboldt penguins), and what they’ve got to do with this music is quite beyond me." ****
The Guardian - 25 May 2007
"A red wine, red-meat disc from the must-have boutique label" *****
Indeoendent On Sunday - 28 May 2007
"Though Brahms’ first piano concerto has the same opus number (15) as Beethoven’s, for his Op 18, he avoided perilous comparisons by writing not quartets, but a single sextet. What a splendid work it is. And what a feast the Nash offer us. The rich sonority of the six instruments in tutti, playing as one, is equalled by the subtlety they bring to the quieter passages, rescuing the andante from the dourness that can afflict it in less skilled hands, and the finale from all danger of long-windedness. The performance of the superb second sextet is also exemplary." ****
The Sunday Times - 27 May 2007
"For a composer who feared comparison with Beethoven and excelled at multiple string lines, the string sextet was the ideal chamber formation. The two works Brahms wrote in this format are among his most satisfying, because they underline his glorious contrapuntal skills and broadly blended sense of cantabile. These performances are effortlessly attuned to the music’s rich sonority and seamless argument."
The Financial Times - 23 June 2007
"This new entry from the Nash Ensemble is special, and it trumps them all. The recording itself is opulent, but retains the detail
to differentiate the voices individually and clearly, so important in Brahms’s densely contrapuntal textures. The Nash players’ emphasize the romantic longing of these scores, but not to the point of exaggeration or excess. Subtle and discretely placed portamentos are tasteful and well timed, and a radiance of tone seems to emanate from deep within the bodies of the instruments. The effect is that of music welling up on its own without the participation of the players. This is gorgeous chamber music-making - urgently recommended."
Fanfare - March/April 2008
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