Brahms: The Sextets


The two Brahm’s string sextets recorded in Hausmusik’s pioneering, historically informed style.


No 1 in Bb Op 18

No 2 in G major Op 36



Hausmusik London

Monica Huggett

Pavlo Beznosiuk

Roger Chase

Jeremy Williams

Richard Lester

David Watkin

Release date:21st Jun 1999
Order code:SIGCD013
Barcode: 635212001325

Ny Tid (Norway), March 2001

The Eroica Quartet’s cellist David Watkin also features on a relatively new cd including the two string sextets of Johannes Brahms on Signum, together with the ensemble Hausmusik, whose first violinist is the eminent Monica Huggett. Like the Eroica Quartet, Hausmusik uses historically correct instruments, but they have a more classical approach than the former. They are, partly because of the use of original instruments, able to clarify the thick textures of Brahms in a way that makes the music even richer than it already is. They also possess an enthusiasm not heard too often. Their way of treating the music is highly sophisticated; their treatment of tempo and dynamics is for instance very subtle. This is Brahms like he should be played!

Ensembles like Hausmusik and the Eroica Quartet are giving the romantic music a renaissance by liberating it from tradition’s accumulated mass of pathos and pompousness, and it is as if we hear the works as new.

Yngve Nordgard

The Guardian, “Keynotes”, 9 March 2001

At the beginning of the1860s Brahms had just seen Liszt and his programmatic works proclaimed as the way forward for German music, and had instinctively reacted against them. For Brahms the future depended on a re-evaluation of the past, building on what his idol Beethoven had achieved in the traditional genres. The symphony and the string quartet were the icons of that lineage, and Brahms worked endlessly to perfect his command of those media before he allowed any of his efforts to reach an audience.

But the string sextet – pairs of violins, villas and cellos – was a different matter. Here was a form of chamber music that carried far less historical baggage than the quartet, yet still epitomised the kind of absolute music he believed in. The B flat Sextet Op.18 appeared in 1860, the G major Op.36 five years late. They are among the most radiantly melodic and attractive of all his chamber works.

Though the use of period instruments in Brahms’s chamber music is by no means widespread, there are such versions of the sextets by the Dutch-based ensemble L’Archibudelli (Sony) and the British group Hausmusik. L’Archibudelli’s accounts are muscular and impassioned, but their phrasing is sometimes rather four=square.

Hausmusik get everything right – their sound is rich and wonderfully detailed, their sense of the music’s spaciousness and arching phrase-structure perfectly caught.

There are very fine but more self-consciously cultured versions by the Raphael Ensemble Hyperion and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields (Chandos) as well as the classic accounts by the Amadeus Quartet with viola player Cecil Aronowitz and cellist William Pleeth (Deutsche Grammophon). All are worth hearing, but Hausmusik provide that little bit extra.

Andrew Clements

Early Music Review, October 1999

Hausmusik’s recordings of the early Romantic repertoire are now well known. It is gratifying that they are now venturing into the later 19th century. As a schoolboy, I clearly remember asking for a violin E string in a music shop, and getting the response, ‘Gut or metal, sir?’ It is to be hoped that it will not be long before we regain that position in the string world; for the earthiness of gut strings is clearly evident, not least in the remarkable andante variations of the Bb sextet (surely inspired by the Bach D minor Chaconne, which he later arranged for piano) with its multiple stopping and chaconne-like bass line, where the immense D minor sonorities contrast with the pianissimo of the almost vibrato-less flute-like D major section. The drive and precision of the ensemble are shown in the stunning finale’s coda. Although I find the G major work the less satisfying of the two, it is immaculate in its detail and its purity of intonation. For those who like their Brahms free of cloying continuous vibrato and the often sharp notes of many modern string players, this is undoubtedly the recording to choose.

Ian Graham-Jones

Gramophone Early Music, Autumn 1999

In the G major Sextet, op.36, Hausmusik easily surpasses the previous period-instrument recording (L’Archibudelli; Sony Classical). 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 that Beths does.

In general Hausmusik’s performance stands comparison with any recording I’ve heard of this work. The second thematic group lilts and swings, 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; and similar examples could fill the rest of this column.

In Op.18, on the other hand, while Hausmusik’s playing is very fine, L’Archibudelli’s is preferable. The latter group integrates its highly detailed articulation more convincingly than it did in Op.36. In the theme of the Op.18 Andante, 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, perhaps, by a faster tempo).

L’Archibudelli also has an advantage in the first movement. Brahms put the word animato under the new theme at b.84, and both ensembles agree (correctly, I believe) 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 and one’s ears adjust. No adjustment is needed for L’Archibudelli, however. It picks up the tempo less drastically, but with even more memorable results. 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.

I must emphasise, however, that 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.

Bernard D.Sherman

BBC Music Magazine, September 1999

It’s tempting to subscribe to the notion that as far as performance on period instruments is concerned, the musical revelations are considerably diminished the further one proceeds into the 19th century. Yet this outstanding new release suggests otherwise. Ears accustomed to the creamy sonorities produced by Isaac Stern and colleagues on a much-admired Sony release will no doubt recoil at the prospect of hearing these glorious works divested of their customary richness. But for me, the results are enlightening and bring an unexpected transparency especially in textures which emphasise the middle and lower ranges. The opening of the B flat Sextet is a case in point. On the Stern disc, Yo Yo Ma’s solo is delivered with wonderful tenderness, and perhaps with an even greater degree of expressivity than that heard on the present releases. Yet the overall effect is less convincing since the accompanying quaver passage-work appears rather turgid in comparison with Hausmusik’s leaner sound.

One might, of course, insist that the modern instruments used by Stern and co afford the opportunity for greater power in climactic passages and a much wider range of dynamics. But this argument is swept away when one hears the exhilarating rustic sounds conjured up by Hausmusik in the central section of the G major scherzo, or the magical use of non-vibrato in the musette variation in the second movement of the B flat. In matters of tempo and the use of rubato, Stern’s group is obviously more expansive and indulgent, but Hausmusik by no means sacrifices flexibility and fluidity, and its interpretations have a warmth that is singularly lacking in the rival period-instrument version from L’Archibudelli (also on Sony). By all accounts, then, this release must be regarded as a benchmark, even for devotees of modern instrument performances.

Erik Levi

  1. Sextet No. 1 (Op. 18): Allegro, ma non troppo – Brahms – 13.53
  2. Sextet No. 1 (Op. 18): Andante, ma moderato – Brahms – 9.09
  3. Sextet No. 1 (Op. 18): Scherzo, Allegro molto – Brahms – 3.00
  4. Sextet No. 1 (Op. 18): Rondo: Poco allegretto e grazioso – Brahms – 10.01
  5. Sextet No. 2 (Op. 36): Allegro non troppo – Brahms – 14.43
  6. Sextet No. 2 (Op. 36): Scherzo: Allegro non troppo – Brahms – 7.05
  7. Sextet No. 2 (Op. 36): Poco adagio – Brahms – 8.52
  8. Sextet No. 2 (Op. 36): Poco allegro – Brahms – 8.37