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Brahms’ Second Sextet followed his First by some five years. In the interim Brahms produced, among other works, two orchestral serenades, three chamber pieces with piano, and the massive, born-with-sweat-and-tears First Piano Concerto. The Sextet No. 2, then, reveals a composer who not only has grown in all the elements of his craft, including very importantly his skill as a contrapuntalist, but also one who has crossed over into the post-youth period as a thirtysomething. Remembering that Brahmsian dramatics on a large scale had already been laid bare in the volatile First Piano Concerto, this later work (1864-65) seems benign indeed. But compared to the geniality of the First Sextet, the Second emerges as a canvas darkened by an austerity, beautiful though it may be, that is a herald of the aura of resignation that came to characterize so much of the composer’s more mature works.

Brahms’ richness of invention animates the score from the outset. A viola murmuring quietly on a semi-trill figure sets the scene for the main theme in the first violin – two ascending fifths, the first in the home key of G followed by one in the unexpected key of E-flat. The viola figure provides a sense of unrest as the violin finds its way back to the home key after briefly exploring the foreign one. After the main idea is repeated, with cello interjections of descending fifths, the first cello sings the main theme as violins take up the murmuring figures. The movement proceeds with all manner of appealing and endearing elegance, including a secondary theme, presented by violin I, that is about as waltzily charming as you please. Thus do charm and veiled beauty coexist in a movement that is filled with compositional subtlety and strength of design.

Brahms puts the Scherzo in second position and makes of it a place of minor-key intimacy expressed in the most sophisticated contrapuntal and rhythmic terms. The middle Trio section provides multiple contrast: It is in triple meter whereas the main section is in duple; the key is G major rather than G minor; and the spirit is dashingly Hungarian. But the underlying strength of the movement, as of the entire work, is the masterful counterpoint that enriches the musical texture.

If Brahms was gathering his new contrapuntal strength in the Sextet, he was continuing his distinctive command of variation form in the third movement Adagio. Not only is this set of variations a mighty technical feat, but it is also music of affecting expressiveness. Brahms had already written several impressive sets of variations for piano solo, including the Handel Variations and the Paganini Variations. Here the string sonorities add a dimension to the variation process that marks the composer as a spiritual seer far beyond his chronological age.

It was an excellent decision to place the Adagio in the penultimate position, considering the busy athleticism of the finale’s main section. The ensemble demands are considerable in the movement’s perpetual-motion passages (which remind one a bit of Mendelssohn’s scherzo ebullience), and the contrasting lyricism radiates with the kind of Brahmsian warmth that is as comforting as anything 19th-century romanticism has to offer.

— Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.