The string sextet is a rare beast. Boccherini was the first composer of note to attempt the form and only a smattering of others followed. But on the evidence of this concert, one was left wondering why? The richness of sound possible opens new doors of colour and texture for composers and the two works performed here, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence and Brahms' String Sextet no. 2 in G major, certainly demonstrated this. Alongside Brahms' First Sextet and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, these must form the masterpieces in the genre.

Takács Quartet
© Ellen Appel

The Tchaikovsky proved to be one of his most inspired chamber works in any form. Gone are the inhibitions of his quartets or the indulgence of the Piano Trio and instead we are left with a passionate work, ingeniously exploiting the combination of instruments to great effect. Indeed, the opening Allegro con spirito is arguably one of his greatest movements in sonata form across his entire output, combining passion with elegance of melody in a near perfect and very satisfying balance. And here the Takács Quartet and friends had all the answers; technically and expressively they were impeccable throughout the movement, finding excitement and delicacy in equal measures. Likewise, in the beautiful slow movement, poised perfectly between tragedy and insouciance, wonderful warmth of tone from the first violin and viola characterised the performance. The polonaise-like third movement with it’s obsessive repetition of a theme that seems to be politely doom laden, was again ideal. It was in the very showy finale that the group showed themselves at their most effective, finding the right combination of technical brilliance and biting determination. This truly felt like a work the composer had laboured over and conquered without reservation.

The Souvenir de Florence is a work of a composer nearing the end of his life and still very much at the height of his powers. Brahms' Second Sextet is a relatively early work and it possesses that expansive idyllic quality of other compositions from that period, notably the earlier Sextet and the B minor Piano Trio. Its mood is harder to define than either of those works and any performance of it must have a languid muscularity at its core. Here the Takács did not feel quite as comfortable as they had in the Tchaikovsky. It was still a noble and uplifting performance but there were times when the strength and accuracy of the ensemble was slightly impaired. This was particularly evident in the long first movement when the opening dynamics felt forced into a pianissimo, rather just emerging. The development section could also have been given more weight. Overall the movement lacked subtle contrasts and loose-limbed charm.

The Scherzo was also not quite on target, lacking some of the sensual edginess needed. However, the slow movement was the most impressive and the extended ecstatic passage at its end came together ideally and beautifully. In the Poco allegro finale there was a sense of straining towards an excitement that was never quite available to them in the music. The mix of lightness and pastoral calm wasn’t quite achieved. However, the more extrovert coda carried all before it and a sense of release and positive energy was finally given to them and the work was rounded off with aplomb.