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.