The two String Quintets are considered to be among Brahms' greatest chamber works. The first was a favorite of the composer, and he wrote to his publisher that, 'you'll never receive anything more beautiful from me.' The second was written when Brahms had all but retired. When he delivered the work to the publisher he wrote, 'with this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.' The Nash Ensemble, having recently celebrated their 40th anniversary, are having something of a golden period. Their previous Onyx discs of Turnage and Mendelssohn received rave reviews.
Not autumnal, not reflective, not reserved, and definitely not restrained, this coupling of Brahms' two string sextets may seem to some to be at best wrong-headed and at worst simply wrong. After all, isn't Brahms the composer for whom the adjective autumnal was coined and to whom the adjectives reflective, reserved, and restrained are reflexively applied? Yes, but that doesn't mean all of Brahms' music is autumnal: he was young once, too and the expansive and exuberant young Brahms is emotionally far from the reflective, reserved, and restrained composer of later years.
There are two principal reasons to try this disc. The first is to hear an attempted reconstruction of Brahms' Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, as a string quintet. Accomplished by Sebastian Brown in 1946, Brahms' rescored and recasted quintet makes a fine work for strings, it's heroic piano part gone but its loss compensated for by the smoothness of the sonority. The second is to hear a work that's never been recorded before – Joseph Miroslav Weber's String Quintet in D major from 1898.
Brahms composed his two published String Quintets amid the rural tranquillity of Bad Ischl in Upper Austria and the works can almost be seen as an expression of escape from the 'urban stress' of nineteenth-century Vienna. The Quintets show Brahms standing at the pinnacle of the composition of chamber music, their gentle pastoral character being subtly shaded by a profoundly melancholy introspection.