Brahms Sextets: which part do you choose–and why?
Fun Sunday activity: you're going to be reading (not rehearsing or performing!) both Brahms sextets with friends.
You're splitting the first violin parts with the other violinist. Which first violin part do you prefer? Or which second violin part do you prefer? And why? What bits do you woodshed ahead of time/resign yourself to fudging? What bits do you love?
Me: I have a slight preference for playing first on Opus 36, despite the tricky octave/string-crossing part in the 4th movement. Why? First, easier key. Fewer stratospheric/squeaky spots than in Opus 18. And the second movement, with that etherial scherzo at the beginning and the whirling country dance section in the middle is just So. Much. Fun. I do, always, dread (and try to practice but I've honestly never nailed it) getting my bow tangled up on the string crossing octaves in the last movement.
In Opus 18, the parts I always look at include the soaring-into-nth-position climax in the first movement, the triplets with the finger extension on the last page of the last movement, and triplets in general. This one always seems to remind me of how weak my 4th finger is...
Woodshedding the second violin parts has never seemed necessary and yet somehow the accidentals in the last movement of Opus 18 often catch me off guard–as do some of the double stops. In Opus 36 I struggle as many do with perfectly even bariolage (but I try not to cheat), as well as not running away with the solo second violin entrance in the final movement.
Also, I've always thought it would be handy for casual chamber music players to have a guide to tricky bits in major literature. Does such a thing exist? Would it be useful to compile?
If you want to choose the one that is technically easier (though not by much) I'd say go for op. 18. (B flat is quite a comfortable key iMO.)
To me, the key to casual sight-reading of chamber music is to choose music that you can at least fake credibly. If you muff entire passages it's fine as long as you don't get lost.
The opportunity doesn't come by nearly often enough for me to have the luxury of choice - once every 10 or 15 years if I'm lucky. Last time in the Op18 I was conscripted to make up the numbers (on a strange viola) in a group consisting mostly of professional quartet players. Fortunately it was New Year's Eve and their sight-reading wasn't much better than mine. Last time in the Op36 I had to play all the parts myself...
I've usually played 2nd viola with a pre-formed quartet. There is plenty to do: the "pianistic" murmurings have to be perfect, and the unexpected fragments of themes have to be as expressive as those of our partners.
For those of you who may not know, both of these sextets were also composed in PIANO TRIO versions (piano, violin and cello). Not as much camaraderie as with the sextets, but otherwise possibly even more fun for the players.
The Brahms viola quintets and sextets to me are sacred ground. There's nothing casual about playing them; and the moment you relax, you miss an entrance and you're swimming in the deep water for 10 or 20 bars.
Thomas, agreed–-for years I only played second, happily. More recently (in the last couple of years) I've had to step up and tackle both first violin parts in various settings. I'm not virtuosic enough to really NAIL either first violin part but I know the sextets so well that it helps, a lot. And usually the people I'm playing with are equally or more skilled than I so we are able to focus more on the nuances.
I LOVE Souvenir de Florence! Take a look at the youtube recording with Janine Jansen and an all-star cast -- they have so much fun with it.
If you've got anything left in the tank after the Brahms and Tchaik sextets why not try the second sextet of Heinrich Reuss?! Very Brahmsian but for me it's better than the Dvorak. The parts are on IMSLP.
The two sextets are Brahms at his contrapuntal best. It will take extra rehearsal time to prepare a decent performance. The 1st violin, viola, cello parts get most, not all, of the lead melody, while the 2nd parts are mostly support. That Tchaikovsky Souvenir of Florence sextet is another great piece. There is a definitive recording with Kogan, Gilels, Barshai, and Rostroprovitch.
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