A little disclaimer for the reader of this review: I've not heard any of these works on this CD in their original form. Before exploring the Naxos Four Hand Series, I had not heard any orchestral/chamber work from Brahms except the Variations on Haydn and a few Hungarian Dances. I'm on an outlandish and rare path of exposing myself to Brahms exclusively through Naxos' Four Hand Piano series. My first taste was the German Requiem for Four Hands, and I was breathless. I still feel stunned by Brahms's music.
Having already reviewed 10 volumes from this Naxos series, I wasn't sure what to expect from the String Sextets. Would they rival the String Quintets and the Piano Quartet, which are my favorite Brahms chamber works from this series? Yes. They may not dethrone those favorites of mine, but these piano arrangements of the String Sextets definitely rival them. This disc contains some of the most tender, magnificent, subtlely beautiful and endearing music I've encountered from Brahms's chamber pieces (so far). Having not heard a string ensemble play these, I don't need the Brahmsians to tell me what I'm missing. But I don't see my lack of exposure as an impediment to review these performances. Indeed, this piano duo and the four-hand arrangements themselves are always superlative. Matthies and Kohn imbue Brahms with all the necessary attributes to make any work of his sound like a brilliant and noble piano composition. Instead of asking does the duo pick up the tone colors, the intimacy, and richness of a string ensemble, one should ask: do they play with sensitivity, control, gusto, and excellent technique? I can answer yes to all of those.
The first String Sextet is my favorite of them all. The first movement is just a delightful escapade full of lush piano phrasing and beautiful harmonies that lilt on the piano. This is not the stereotypical dark or heavy Brahms, but a cheerful romantic Brahms; the duo plays this with such delicacy and sweetness. The second movement is the shining star of this entire disc. It's a titanic and majestic movement in the style of Bach. On the piano, it sounds like some glorious long-lost Variations on a Theme. This is a powerhouse of a piece and the piano duo plays it with grandeur, perfection of dynamics, and heroic virtuosity. The following Scherzo is bursting with melody and rhythmic excitement. It's a compact Scherzo, just under 3 minutes, with an agreeable trio; the separate voices that verge on the point of becoming polyphonic sound crisp and clear on the piano. The last movement, is perhaps Brahms's loveliest: a Rondo with a somewhat feminine and pastoral theme. As we can expect, the piano duo plays their heart out, treating the canonic passages and forte moments with passion.
The second String Sextet is another jewel of immensely satisfying piano music. The first movement is unique in that it takes its time to identify a theme. There is a mystical and foggy mood that hovers over the piece; with the exquisite dynamic control, one anticipates but never really knows when the piano duo will suddenly play stronger or louder. Surprises abound everywhere and the movement itself is wholesome and masculine Brahms. The Scherzo movement is another melodious gem with splendid moments of pianistic brio, but the the poco adagio movement is the stunning winner here with a kind of serenity only heard from the piano. The duo whisper to each other as they communicate Brahms's ideas. There is an air of Baroque flavor with its various contrapuntal outbursts, and the piano emphasizes this quite nicely, I think. The final movement is full of contrasting lively rapidity and lyrical reflection. On the piano, the entire work emanates with warmth and refinement, a perfect display of the piano's versatility.
Bottom line: I share Scott's (the review below me) enthusiasm about this entire series. Indeed, I find the piano performances on each disc and the entire series itself an invaluable contribution to Brahms and Romantic piano discography. The String Sextets are early but brilliantly beautiful music, perfectly represented with all nuances, textures and themes and given impeccable treatment by the piano duo.