There is something comforting and nostalgic about the opening of Johannes Brahms’ String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat Major. It begins with an expansive theme in the cello, which seems to draw us in and wrap its arms around us in a warm embrace. In this melody, you can hear the motivic seeds of the similarly warm and majestic theme from the final movement of Brahms’ First Symphony.
Completed in 1860, this is music by the young, 27-year-old Brahms. With this piece, he escaped Beethoven’s shadow, temporarily, to explore new territory freely. At the time, only a few composers, such as Luigi Boccherini and Louis Spohr, had written for this combination of instruments (two violins, two violas, two cellos). Yet, this is music with an old soul. The ghost of Schubert emerges in a momentary pizzicato bass line, or a delightfully unexpected harmonic shift. Along with the sunny sounds of Vienna and the Austrian Ländler, we hear the immortal voices of lament.
The second movement (Andante, ma moderato) is a set of adventurous variations built on the La Folia bass line, popular in the baroque period. Amid swirling lines, the intensity builds from one variation to the next, until we get to the sixth variation, where an intimate and mysterious statement emerges in the solo viola. The movement, which climaxed with so much ferocious passion, fades into a nostalgic farewell.
A motivic fragment from the trio section of the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a constant presence in the brief Scherzo of Brahms’ Sextet. The opening theme of the final movement (Rondo) is closely related to the theme which opened the first movement. As one episode moves to another, there are some incredible adventures and surprises in store, concluding with a joyful flourish.
This performance from the 2019 International Chamber Music Festival in Utrecht features Janine Jansen and Friends. In addition to hearing the vibrant conversation between instruments which unfolds in this music, you get a visual sense of the inner weave of the lines as you watch the communication between musicians. The performers are Janine Jansen and Boris Brovtsyn (violin), Amihai Grosz and Gareth Lubbe (viola), Jens Peter Maintz and Torleif Thedéen (cello).