Brahms: Serenades 1 & 2 (SACD review)

Kurt Masur, Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig. PentaTone Classics PTC 5186 188.

By now, most classical music lovers know that because of Beethoven's intimidating shadow, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) had a hard time writing the first of his symphonies, and critics suppose he rather sneaked up on the subject via the two Serenades of the late 1850's. To my ear, his Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (1858), in particular, is still the match for any orchestral material the man produced, and it predated the première of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

The Serenade No. 1 is by turns warm, gentle, lyric, and cheerful. And it is fairly long work of its kind, around forty-five minutes, but never less than delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies. The Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16 (1860), is shorter, about half the length of No. 1, and slightly less outgoing, but it, too, has its appeals, not the least of which is its chamber-music quality.

Maestro Kurt Masur's performances come from a Philips set he recorded in 1981, just a few years after Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw had done the Serenades for the same record company, so at the time, comparisons were inevitable, usually in Haitink's favor. Listening to them today, one can hear that Haitink is bit lighter and Masur a bit darker, but that takes nothing away from the Masur interpretations. Masur imparts a warm autumnal glow to the pieces and helps one see them as perhaps more serious than people sometimes view them.

Interestingly, Philips recorded these works (as they recorded many things in the Seventies and early Eighties) for possible playback in multichannel sound, and PentaTone have remastered the original Philips four-channel tapes on Super Audio Compact Disc or SA-CD. (Note that PentaTone calls the process SA-CD, with a hyphen in the middle; I don't know why.) Although SACD's have the capability to carry up to 5.1 channels, PentaTone chose to release these recordings in the four-channel format of the original tapes.

I listened to alternate movements first in my regular Sony ES player and then in my Sony SACD player to hear how the two formats on this hybrid disc sounded. I faced two handicaps, however:  (1) I have only two speakers in my living room music system, and (2) I did not have a regular two-channel stereo CD with which to make instant comparisons. Indeed, I am not even sure Philips ever issued a CD of these performances, and if they did, I've never heard it. So, I did the next best thing, listening to one movement one way and the next movement another way, but with a moment's gap between the two. I could well be mistaken, but it appeared that the extra headroom and bit rates of the SACD provided a tad more clarity and dynamics to the proceedings. However, I'm sure I would never be able to duplicate my findings in a blind test as the "golden ears" for other magazines claim they are able to do, so let's just say that in both instances, the sound is quite nice.

The PentaTone recording is not as open or as transparent as the Haitink recording, which I did have opportunity to A-B, but that is no fault of the PentaTone transfer, which I'm sure is as close to the sound of the master tapes as possible. It's just that the Gewandhaus Orchestra always sounds--to my ears, anyway--darker and richer than most other orchestras, and this is never more apparent than in the first movement of the Serenade No. 1. Nevertheless, the sound of the orchestra and the naturalness of PentaTone's mastering complement one another quite well, and the result is highly listenable.

Did I mention I love this music?  Yes.

Adapted from a review the author originally published in the $ensible Sound magazine.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

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Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

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