Picks and Pans Review: Brahms: String Sextets

updated 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

Isaac Stern, Cho-Liang Lin, Jaime Laredo, Michael Tree, Yo-Yo Ma, Sharon Robinson

Think of it as the "Layla" of 1864, a young man's stirring monument to the pain of ruined love. For Eric Clapton, the unattainable object of desire was Patti Boyd Harrison, the wife of his best friend, George Harrison. For 31-year-old Johannes Brahms, it was Agathe Von Seibold, a professor's daughter, who had broken oil their passionate affair when he was 26 because he could not bring himself to make her Mrs. Brahms (the composer remained single for life). Stirring the embers of his obsession one last time, Brahms wove Agathe's name (assigning notes to the letters) into his string sextet in G Major, Op. 36. When he had finished, he wrote to a friend, "Here I have freed myself from my last love." In doing so, he created an exquisitely beautiful work in which the tolls and joys of love entwine like smoke.

The musicians assembled here by violinist Isaac Stern bring gravity, emotion and a singing fluidity to both the Op. 36 and the poignant, lyrical Op. 18 sextet, a more youthful work in which Brahms, writing in a pastoral retreat, sought to reconcile personal passions and the idealism of his time. The second movement is so gripping that Brahms later wrote a version of it for solo piano, included here newly recorded by the estimable Emanuel Ax. It has the quality of an ascent to some exalted summit, and after its hushed last notes die away, you want to sit absolutely still for a while. (Sony)

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