Brahms: The String Sextets

Though it took some time to get there, the ensemble Viola by Choice proved how essential the viola is in chamber music

Arts Review

Brahms: The String Sextets

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Feb. 23

Quick: Name your favorite viola piece. Now name a famous viola virtuoso. Not coming up with anything right away? It's likely that many would react the same. Widespread popularity evades the viola. Overshadowed from above and below by the violin and the cello, the instrument has sat in the background of music history, a supporting player to its star siblings of the orchestral string family.

With its deep, lush timbre (arguably the closest instrumental match to the human voice) and significant solo material, there is certainly a strong case for the viola. Here in Austin to make the argument is violist Aurélien Pétillot, the founder of Viola by Choice.

Reading over the organization's mission statement, a bold manifesto that involves no less than 17 bullet points, there is no question as to Pétillot's passion. His mission is not only to bring attention to the viola's rightful place in musical history but also to draw focus through performance to its central role in the established works of chamber music.

On this night, Pétillot partnered with violinists Jennifer Bourianoff and Alexis Ebbets, fellow violist Martha Carapetyan, and cellists Leanne Zacharias and Julia Cory to perform the celebrated string sextets of Johannes Brahms. The rarely chosen string-sextet setting presents an equal, balanced playing field for the viola.

Pétillot introduced each sextet with a discussion of the instrument's role in the pieces and offered musical examples by having the sextet play the opening bars of each movement. As an introduction to the first sextet, this exercise offered little more than academic context and seemed strange for a public concert setting.

Written early in Brahms' compositional life, the first sextet is a lush and elegant piece. The players got off to a rocky start in the first movement, where intonation issues and a lack of a common rhythmic ground plagued the group. Where they excelled was in the sextet's more intimate solo moments. A highlight was Zacharias' radiant cello melodies that juxtaposed the determined, driving force of the second movement. The sextet concluded with an exciting viola flourish, handled by Pétillot with confidence and zeal. The solo details notwithstanding, the performance never found its footing and lacked overall unity and balance.

The second half of the performance opened with greater success. Pétillot began with discussion of Brahms' love life and the role it played in the stormy, exciting mood swings of his second sextet. At the time, Brahms was embroiled in several failed romances, a reality that clearly informed his writing; for example, one such affair resulted in a motif that literally spells out the woman's first name in the sextet. For Brahms fans, this was a special treat, humanizing a composer so often credited with an almost cold focus on absolutism as opposed to the programmatic devices of romanticism.

The players opened the second sextet with assurance, allowing Brahms' emotional waves to swell back and forth. Altogether, the ensemble seemed more at ease than earlier, which served the furious climax of the folksy, eccentric second movement well. The pastoral third movement was inspired, again strengthened by Zacharias' lovely cello work. In the fourth movement, the ensemble achieved a bouncy, tight confidence that drove to its exciting final notes. Though it took some time to get there, the ensemble eventually lived up to the promise of those dramatic 17 bullet points, enjoying a spirited ovation.

In his introduction to the second sextet, Pétillot had the rest of his ensemble play the opening bars without the first viola part. It was a good choice, as the moodiness of the movement is established entirely through the viola's wavy undulation, and sounded incomplete without it. The gesture summed up Viola by Choice nicely: The viola is essential! In the end, though, what leaves a lasting impression is this message coupled with inspiring performance, which the ensemble achieved in the night's second effort.

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Brahms: The String Sextets, Viola by Choice, Aurélien Pétillot, Jennifer Bourianoff, Alexis Ebbets, Martha Carapetyan, Leanne Zacharias, Julia Cory

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