Brahms Sextets: which part do you choose–and why?

December 22, 2019, 3:43 PM · 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.

You?

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?

Replies (10)

Edited: December 22, 2019, 10:29 PM · 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.)

On the other hand: I don't really worry about the part. A chance to play these pieces in full ensemble is so wonderful that I would even agree to be page turner if one were necessary. And if a couple of passages fail: This is not a problem in the context of friends sight-reading.

December 22, 2019, 10:32 PM · 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.

Chamber-music sight-reading groups need to be wisely chosen so that one person isn't getting hugely more or less notes than everyone else. :-)

December 23, 2019, 7:34 AM · 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...
December 23, 2019, 7:39 AM · 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.
December 23, 2019, 7:53 AM · 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.
Edited: December 23, 2019, 11:02 AM · 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.

Any time you can get 5 or 6 players good enough to really PLAY these pieces, especially 5 or 6 people sensitive enough to know when to play softly ... to me it's one of life's special experiences.

For people who play violin and viola well enough, there are FOUR fantastic parts to learn. As someone who's played them all, I can honestly say I enjoy them equally, and the difficulty can lie in all sorts of less obvious places.

For example, the Op 111 quintet is a viola showpiece - has brilliant, famous solos for Viola 1, but it's Viola 2 that might have the harder part with all kinds of wicked right hand and left hand challenges.

Obviously Violin 1 has exhilarating, virtuosic and incredibly beautiful lines. But if you want to fully appreciate the intricacy of the harmonies and Brahms rhythmic magic, the 2nd violin part is a blast -- and really just as difficult.

If you're playing 2nd, sometimes you think you're merely "supporting" but really you're anchoring the whole piece. You're playing syncopated thirds or fifths or a fast ostinato with string crossings, and you have to hold together the entire ensemble and tune yourself to the violin and cellos to make the harmonies work. Meanwhile the first has the easy part -- play a pretty little obligato in 7th position and don't let it go sharp.

So -- don't worry about what part to play. Enjoy them all. Treasure every bar, every note. It's as good as life gets for a musician.

December 23, 2019, 3:46 PM · 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'll be splitting first next weekend with a friend and was asked to choose ahead of time. This made me curious about what other people (with ostensibly different strengths/weaknesses/preferences) might choose. Hence the question!

Because I'm also playing first on the less-known-to-me and in some ways trickier Tchaikovsky sextet, that's probably what I'll actually spend time practicing.

Edited: December 29, 2019, 9:12 AM · 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.

That recording is actually a great example of what I was referring to with the Brahms -- the 2nd violin has to hold the ensemble together while the 1st (and often the cello) get to sing these beautiful little arias. In the video, the 2nd is Vilde Frang (one of my favorite violinists in the whole world -- she's just amazing)

The V1 has a few pretty tough licks and some extreme high position stuff but it's pretty straightforward. If anything the other parts are harder because it's so much relentless difficult ostinato, lots of syncopated and difficult passing of lines back and forth -- and you have to really keep up your concentration to keep an edge on it. And, of course, being Tchaik, it's long.

December 24, 2019, 3:23 AM · 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.
Edited: December 24, 2019, 11:48 AM · 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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