Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brahms' String Sextet Op. 36

This morning I got an “ear worm” for this piece and began searching for a version of it, only to discover that in most cases, either the intonation or the intention of the players was lacking. Well finally, I arrived at an acceptable version, one that did not unduly set my teeth on edge.

What is so difficult about it? Just play the notes. Easy for me to say, I suppose. For strings, my favourite after piano music, the magic balance seems to be intonation (if the players are even sensible of the fact that they are playing out of tune and off key and can correct it) and vibrato, which enough is really required the longer the note, in order not to sound thin. Of course the calibre of the instrument and the bow can have a lot more to do with it than most suppose. I recall a few years back hearing a good cellist play a fabulous cello. The composition she played was ca-ca. Nevertheless once in a while one got the sense of how a really good cello is supposed to sound.

On this blog, I like to showcase live performances whenever I can. If you get on here, your intonation is acceptable. If it isn't, I'm not going to bother pointing it out to you, I just wont post you here. The idea is to project classical music as a living and greatly loved art form that continues to attract lively performers and one always hopes, livelier audiences.

Many people have the erroneous idea that classical music is dead or a museum craft. Let me therefore ask everyone if they suppose that truth is dead? All truth lies in the past. Truth cannot be easily established in the present and who knows about the future? If one is always in “be here now” mode, rather than at least commonly aware of the past, where all is dead and gone, while living through the continuing experience of the present, then one is invariably simple prey to whatever whimsical whatnot is going on at the moment. Of course some want you there; to be but a willing consumer of whatever the next fad is that they have in store. Here today, gone tomorrow, just as long as they turn a buck. Now, with that said, let's get on with it.

Johannes Brahms was a serious fellow who set out to write music that would continue the traditions established by the classical masters (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert), which is bluntly stated, music that would last a long time, perhaps for eternity. He certainly knew his Bach and had as well the 300 odd harpsichord sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti. Indeed, we might not even have these were it not for Brahms, who always scanned various estate sales, etc. for rare musical manuscripts.

This string sextet is his second. It was written for 2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos. It was written during 1864 and 1865 and first performed in Boston, Massachusetts on October 11, 1866. Brahms was in Germany, not in Massachusetts, but this demonstrates that even back then this music was international as it certainly is today. It has four movements, just like a symphony.

Being a man in his early thirties at the time, it has been suggested Brahms may have written it perhaps to escape a dangerous infatuation. It is said to contain “extremely expressive sensuousness and igneous passion,” or “its exotic sounding opening of the first movement [achieved entirely by the curious use of wavering], by innovative chord structures and its many contrasts, both technical and melodical.” all of which is to say there's plenty here to amaze and astound. It's really a precursor to his later symphonies. The point of all that is that it's difficult enough to play well, reasonably hard on the audience (it gives them plenty of things to ponder deeply) and remains high on the lists of those things one longs to hear of a good live performance.

Brahms Sextet in G major, Op. 36
1. Allegro non troppoI
2. Scherzo - Allegro non troppo - Presto giocosoII
3. Adagio [Theme and variations] – III
4. [Finale] Poco allegroIV 

The players are Noah Bendix-Balgley and Amy Schwartz Moretti, violins, Dimitri Murrath and Yehonatan Berick, violas and Julie Albers and Robert deMaine, cellos. This performance took place at Mixon Hall, Cleveland Institute of Music as part of Chamberfest Cleveland [Ohio] June 26, 2013.

The third Chamberfest Cleveland is about to get under way. If you're in the area, please patronize them! 

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