Discover the Chamber Music Repertoire: Five Sextets to Add to Your Playlist

At ChamberMusicBox we are passionate about introducing our audience to fantastic chamber music repertoire that you may never have come across before. This week it’s the turn of Sextets!

Mikhail Glinka – Grand Sextet in E flat major

A jewel of the Russian chamber music repertoire

Widely considered the father of Russian music, Glinka was not only the first Russian composer to gain international recognition, but also became the leading influence for the next generation of composers, particularly for the “Big Five”: Balakirev, Mussorgsky, Borodin, Cui and Rimsky-Korsakov. Raised in a wealthy family, he studied both the violin and piano as a child, but never received professional musical training as such. 

On the advice of his doctor, Glinka travelled to Italy to improve his poor health and it was in Milan that he wrote the Grand Sextet. He was a frequent visitor to La Scala, where the music of Donizetti in particular made a huge impression on him. This three-movement work is largely dominated by its virtuosic piano part, written by Glinka for the daughter of his Italian doctor, with whom he had become utterly infatuated. 

Full of operatic influences, this is a delightful work sure to feature on one of our programmes very soon. 

Glinka Sextet
John Ireland Sextet

John Ireland – Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet

Brahms in the English countryside

This absolutely gorgeous work was loved by our audience when we first programmed it in 2019. 

John Ireland wrote his Sextet for clarinet, horn and string quartet as a student, shortly after attending the British premiere of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet perform by Mühlfeld and the Joachim Quartet. It wasn’t, however, until several decades later that the score was almost coincidentally discovered by the great British clarinettist Thea King, who had come to see Ireland about his Phantasy Sonata for clarinet and piano. She went on to premiere the work in 1960 for the Hampton Music Club. 

Brahms’ influence is evident throughout the piece and one could go as far as saying that it is the wind and string sextet that Brahms never wrote. Ireland’s treatment of each individual instrument is masterful and his writing creates beautiful sonorities between the two wind instruments and the string quartet. 

Guillaume Connesson – Sextet for oboe, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass and piano

Chamber music for our time

Guillaume Connesson is a French composer born in 1970 in Boulogne-Billancourt. Citing his influences as, amongst others, Couperin, Wagner, Stravinsky, Messian, Steve Reich and John Adams, he is a hugely accomplished writer of chamber music. This is what Connesson had to say about his Sextet:

“Composed for my friends Eric Le Sage and Paul Meyer for a New Year concert, this sextet was written with festivities and entertainment in mind. The first movement, “Dynamic”, is a series of variations, which multiply the rhythmic processes inherited from minimalist American music. The central “Nocturnal” section is a soft and painful confidence sang by the clarinet amid a harmonic backdrop of strings and piano. Finally, “Festivities” creates a sense of joy and excitement (with an allusion to Schubertʼs “Trout”). The score ends with a “cadential” joke.”

Connesson Sextet
Penderecki Sextet

Krzysztof Penderecki – Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano

Penderecki’s most substantial chamber work

During the course of his career Penderecki had intermittedly written the odd chamber music work – mainly for specific performer friends of his – but didn’t approach the medium in earnest until the 1990s.

Written in 2000, the Sextet for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and piano is a far more accessible work than one might expect. Influences of Stravinsky and Shostakovich can be heard and each instrument receives equal importance. The piece is laid out in two contrasting movements, both clearly structured with different tempos and expressions. 

The line-up of performers for its premiere bore testament to the work’s status as a modern masterpiece: Dmitri Alexeev (piano), Julian Rachlin (violin), Yuri Bashmet (viola), Mstislav Rostropovich (cello), Paul Meyer (clarinet) and Radovan Vlatkovich (horn) gave the first performance in June 2000 at the Vienna Musikverein, the venue which had commissioned Penderecki to write the Sextet. 

This magnificent work deserves far more outings on the concert platform and is sure to feature on one of our programmes before long. 

Bohuslav Martinu – La Revue de Cuisine (Jazz Ballet)

The romantic life of kitchen utensils

Yes, you read that correctly! This is precisely the plot on which Martinu’s 1927 work La Revue de Cuisine is based, with characters including the married couple of the pot and the lid, a seductive whisk, a dishcloth and a violent broom. Whilst the thematic material may appear strange at first glance, Martinu was by no means the only composer to draw inspriration from inanimate objects. Ravel’s 1924 work L’enfant et les sortilèges features characters including a clock and a teacup, whilst Stravinsky’s 1911 Petrushka centres around the complicated romantic lives of puppets.

The line-up for this work is reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale, with piano instead of percussion and the cello replacing the double bass. From the Prologue right through the Tango and Charleston middle middle movements and all the way to the finale, this 15 minute suite is a wonderful tour de force worth exploring. 

Martinu La Revue de Cuisine

Keen to discover more fantastic chamber music repertoire? Take a look at 5 Quintets to Add to Your Playlist!


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