The Belcea Quartet is generally regarded as one of the world’s best string quartets, and it has a large and faithful body of fans in Hamburg. As part of the digital 2021 Hamburg International Music Festival, the ensemble devotes itself on two separate evenings to Johannes Brahms’s works for strings, and invites prominent guests to join them. After a string quartet and a quintet in the first recital, their second concert is devoted to the early string sextets – two works where the composer creates an almost orchestral fullness of sound. The quartet is reinforced here by two top-class artists: Tabea Zimmermann on the viola and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras.
Note: All Hamburg International Music Festival 2021 concerts are available to stream free of charge. Once premiered, each concert stream can be accessed for the whole festival period.
An overview of all 2021 festival concerts.
»It doesn’t feel like work to us. I often think how fortunate we are to be doing what we were born to do.«
Corina Belcea, first violin in the Belcea Quartet
Corina Belcea violin
Axel Schacher violin
Krzysztof Chorzelski viola
Antoine Lederlin violoncello
Tabea Zimmermann viola
Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello
Johannes Brahms (1833–1897)
String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 (1862)
String Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36 (1864/65)
Duration: approx. 70 minutes
About the quartet
The Belcea Quartet, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019, is one of the world’s most renowned string quartets. Formed at the Royal College of Music in London, the ensemble includes members from three countries: the first violinist Corina Belcea comes from Romania, violist Krzysztof Chorzelski is from Poland, and Axel Schacher and Antoine Lederlin on the violin and cello are French.
The musicians trained under world-famous mentors from the Amadeus and Alban Berg quartets, and now perform on the world’s most prestigious stages, including the Concertgebouw Amsterdam, New York’s Carnegie Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall, as well as at the famous festivals in Lausanne, Salzburg and Schwarzenberg. The Belcea Quartet also regularly visits Hamburg. In February 2017, the ensemble was one of the first ever string quartets to perform in the Elbphilharmonie Recital Hall.
The quartet’s impressive discography includes award-winning recordings of Beethoven’s complete quartets, as well as CDs of all string quartets by Britten, Bartók and Brahms. In collaboration with renowned musicians such as the pianists Piotr Anderszewski and Till Fellner, the cellist Valentin Erben and the singers Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, the quartet has also released albums featuring works by Mozart, Schubert, Fauré and Dutilleux – a tradition the quartet continues in their latest concert stream.
Tabea Zimmermann – Viola
About Tabea Zimmermann
Tabea Zimmermann is one of the most renowned and celebrated performers of our time. Audiences and fellow musicians value her profound musical insight and the naturalness of her playing. The violist has received numerous awards for her artistic accomplishments, most recently the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Music Prize in 2020.
As a soloist, she regularly works with the world’s leading orchestras. In recent years, she has held residencies in Weimar and Luxembourg, and with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Hamburg’s Ensemble Resonanz, with which she continues to collaborate closely.
Zimmermann has awakened the interest of many contemporary composers in the viola, and has premiered several new works. Her discography encompasses more than 50 award-winning CDs, among them recordings of Paul Hindemith’s complete works for viola, and pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach and Max Reger. One of the highlights of her intensive engagement with Ludwig van Beethoven involved recording using the composer’s own viola.
Zimmermann lives in Berlin and has three (almost) adult children. She has been teaching at the Hanns Eisler University of Music since 2002.
Jean-Guihen Queyras – Violoncello
About Jean-Guihen Queyras
»This man has reinvented the cello,« wrote Diapason magazine about Jean-Guihen Queyras, one of the world’s most diverse and extraordinary cellists. Queyras applies himself with equal enthusiasm to early and contemporary music. He gives concerts with ensembles specialising in historically informed performance such as the Freiburger Barockorchester, and also regularly premieres new works by composers such as Bruno Mantovani and Thomas Larcher.
Queyras is a regular on the world’s most prestigious concert stages. He is also popular with audiences in Hamburg: he has performed Bach’s Cello Suites in a choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in the Elbphilharmonie Grand Hall, and has given a concert at the Laeiszhalle with Emmanuel Pahud and Eric Le Sage. Chamber music is dear to his heart: he is a founding member of the Arcanto Quartet and plays as a trio with Isabelle Faust and Alexander Melnikov.
His impressive discography includes recordings of cello concertos by Edward Elgar, Antonín Dvořák, Robert Schumann, Philippe Schoeller and Gilbert Amy. Queyras teaches at the Freiburg University of Music and is the Artistic Director of the Rencontres Musicales de Haute-Provence festival in Forcalquier in the south of France.
Countering the Beethoven complex with serenade sounds :About the programme: Johannes Brahms’s String Sextets
String quartets are a dime a dozen in the world of chamber music. Trios and quintets are far less numerous, while serious duos and sextets are very rare. One possible reason for this is that the combination of melody and accompanying trio very naturally leads to the quartet form. Other instrumentations are less popular because they involve deviating from the ideal of four-part texture: in the duo, it seems that there are voices missing, while in the sextet it appears that there are too many superfluous ones. As a result, duos for melodic instruments are often only études, for teachers and students for instance, while the sextet and other large ensembles have a reputation as being superficial serenade music.
Now you can’t exactly call Johannes Brahms’s two string sextets aesthetic lightweights, but there are certainly parallels with the entertaining night music of the eighteenth century – including traditional dance-like elements and, in the first sextet, a comparatively simple structure that clearly separates the melody from the accompaniment.
Brahms admitted that he had begun and abandoned more than 20 string quartets before he published his two quartets, Op. 51, when he was 40 years old. The reason behind those years of hesitancy was his almost pathological self-criticism – an insecurity in the face of Beethoven’s unsurpassable achievements. In contrast, his First String Sextet of 1859/60 was a great success at the first attempt early in his career, presumably because the instrumentation was not burdened with an intimidating tradition. A young composer could approach the sextet form far less self-consciously.
Waltz, folia and musette :String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18
In both sextets, Brahms took the traditional four-movement model as his point of reference. The first movement in both sextets is in the traditional sonata form – however, in the first sextet it contains three themes rather than the usual two. The expressive, gently flowing main theme is initially played by the first cello before the first violin takes over. Shortly afterwards, a waltz-like melody is played by several instruments – but in the »wrong« key of A major. The third theme is reminiscent of a ländler, a folk dance.
Brahms composed the second movement in his favourite form, namely as a set of variations. However, the foundation of the six variations is not the initial melody, but the underlying harmonic pattern. In the first three variations, movement becomes increasingly vivacious, culminating in the cresting and plunging bass passages of the third. No. 5 is like a musette – it’s reminiscent of bagpipe music.
In the subsequent scherzo, the playful character lies not in the rhythm, as is often the case, but in the harmonics. After firmly establishing the basic tonality with constant oscillation, Brahms surprises the listener with completely unexpected twists. The finale then strikes a typical serenade sound: its graceful flourishes and the closed, regularly structured themes point to the Rococo period. Packaged in the rondo form, it brilliantly modifies the recurring chorus with every repetition.
Liberation from love :String Sextet No. 2, Op. 36
Brahms often composed two works in the same genre in quick succession: for example the serenades Op. 11 and Op. 16, the two string quartets Op. 51, and the pairs of symphonies Nos. 1 and 2, and Nos. 3 and 4. »And the second work,« according to Brahms’s biographer Hans Gál, »is always even richer, his technique even surer, the form even freer and more generous.«
Many music lovers believe the same about the Second String Sextet, composed in 1864/65. In the first sextet, Brahms had several instruments playing in octaves or in unison in many places, generating orchestral effects. He reduced his use of such effects in the second sextet, where counterpoint – the complex, contrasting voice leading of Baroque tradition – plays an important role instead. In this way the main theme of the first movement is artfully used, for example as a four-voice canon. However, there were consequences to such erudition. While the first sextet brought Brahms the first major success of his career, the second only gradually established a place for itself in concert life.
By the way...
One of the many remarkable elements in the first movement is the passage that follows the rousing secondary theme: the first violin and the first viola repeat the notes A-G-A-B (H in German)-E, forming the name »Agathe« (although without a note to represent the letter T). »This is how I freed myself from my Göttingen love!« explained Brahms in a letter, referring to the dissolution of his engagement to Agathe von Siebold, daughter to a Göttingen professor, in 1858.
After the dance-like second movement, there is another slow one, a very unusual set of variations. The theme is introduced with such independent counter-voices that the listener hardly recognises it as a melody. And the subsequent sections take things so far away from its original form that the critic Eduard Hanslick, who was also a friend of Brahms’s, called it »variations on no theme«.
The finale uses motifs from the opening movement as well as from the scherzo – with Brahms thus rounding the sextet into a cycle.
Text: Jürgen Ostmann
Translation: Dr Seiriol Dafydd
Supported by the Kühne Foundation, the Hamburg Ministry of Culture and Media, Stiftung Elbphilharmonie and the Förderkreis Internationales Musikfest Hamburg