The Cypress String Quartet (CSQ) of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel gave its final recital in San Francisco on June 26, 2016, only a few weeks short of its founding twenty years earlier. For one of the concerts of its farewell season, it was joined by two guest artists, violist Barry Shiffman and cellist Zuill Bailey. The program for that evening consisted entirely of the two string sextets by Johannes Brahms, Opus 18 in B-flat major and Opus 36 in G major.
This was definitely one of the most memorable events of that final season. Fortunately, these musicians then traveled north to Skywalker Sound, where they made live recordings of playing both of the sextets in front of an invited studio audience. Those recordings were made for Avie Records, and the resulting CD was released this past Friday.
Both of these sextets, composed in 1856 and 1865, respectively, make for some of Brahms’ most refreshing chamber music. Indeed, Opus 18 was his first piece of strings-only chamber music; and one can definitely sense the youthful enthusiasm behind it. However, what is most important about both of these pieces is how imaginatively Brahms manages to keep all six voices actively “in play” throughout each composition. There is, of course, always a sense of foreground and background; but the mobility with which different instruments occupy the foreground is truly stimulating, particularly when one can see that mobility during a concert performance.
Equally important is that this was genuinely a “CSQ and friends” program. The chemistry of Shiffman and Bailey with the quartet members could easily be sensed during the concert performance, and it has been captured to the best of technological ability on this new recording. CSQ established an impressive legacy of recordings over the course of its twenty-year career. Those recordings included not only the collection of short pieces (which were originally songs set to love poetry) by Antonín Dvořák, after which the group was named, but also the complete cycle of all of the string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, the repertoire that motivated the group’s formation in the first place.
This is the group’s only recording of Brahms, but he plays a significant role that is situated between those other two composers. All the insights that CSQ brought to its interpretations of Beethoven and Dvořák apply just as strongly in taking on these two sextets. For those who have not yet gotten to know these two pieces, this album could not provide a better introduction. Those who know the repertoire, on the other hand, will definitely appreciate the group’s sensitivity to the enthusiastic freshness that Brahms brought to composed both of the sextets.