It is one of the ironies of the chamber music repertoire that some of the most popular works are performed relatively infrequently. Extra players have to be found beyond the usual four of a string quartet to perform such favorites as the Schubert and Mendelssohn octets.
The two string sextets by Brahms fall into this category. Works for six string players together were a novelty when Brahms wrote them in the 1860s, though in the following decades other composers were drawn to this sextet form, including Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, Korngold and Schoenberg.
For Brahms, the attraction is clear. Add an additional viola and cello to the standard line-up of a string quartet and the textures are given extra depth and that golden warmth that suffuses so much of his music.
Although his string sextets may not come round so often in the recital hall, they have been popular on disc. A new recording enters a competitive field, but the Belcea Quartet with their two guests – viola player Tabea Zimmermann and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras, both soloists in their own right – more than hold their own.
One would have to go back to the Amadeus Quartet to find a recording with a more distinctive claim for recommendation. No other recent performances surpass these for their mellifluous blend of sound and the naturalness with which the six players allow the music to flow, not too emphatic, but always giving the music its full weight and significance. The music glows, as Brahms surely intended it should.
‘Brahms: String Sextets‘is released by Alpha Classics