Brahms: Serenades (CD review)

Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-05.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) didn’t complete his first symphony until he was around forty-three years old, supposedly because of the intimidating shadow of Beethoven. In the meantime, the closest he came was contenting himself with two Serenades in the late 1850’s (and at least starting a First Symphony, which he finally completed in the 1870’s). No matter; his Serenade No. 1 is still pretty close to a symphony, and it’s the match for any orchestral material the man ever produced, even if it did predate the premi√®re of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

This was the first time I’d heard the Serenades performed on period instruments, and it is quite a welcome change of pace. My three favorite previous versions have been on modern instruments, versions by Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Kurt Masur and the Gewandhaus Orchestra (PentaTone), and Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony Orchestra (Decca). I think now I’ll have to add one more version to my list.

For reasons known only to Maestro Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque, they give us the Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16 (1860) first on the program. It is shorter than No. 1, about half its length, slightly darker, and less outgoing; and it has its special appeals, not the least of which is its chamber-music quality in which winds predominate (there are no violins involved).

McGegan’s reading of No. 2 is wonderfully lyrical and relaxed. The mood may be mellower than No. 1 but don’t tell that to the PBO. They play even the slower sections with a joyous enthusiasm. The piece is in five movements, in all of which the orchestra displays a boundless energy, creating a sweet spirit and a resonant atmosphere.

While I’m not sure that playing on period instruments improves the performance all that much, it certainly does nothing to distract from it. Indeed, the distinctive sonic character they produce does add a new flavor to the mix. With performing skills of such a high order and an interpretation so gentle and lovely, the musicians could be playing on penny whistles and make it sound right. The Quasi minuetto in particular has a lilting charm, and the closing Rondo, Allegro has an energetic bounce.

Then comes the Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11 (1858), which is alternately gentle, warm, lyrical, and always cheerful. It is a typically youthful work, the composer just in his mid twenties at the time he wrote it. It is also a fairly long work of its kind, close to fifty minutes, yet it is quite delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies.

In No. 1 Brahms was much more youthfully high spirited than he would be in No. 2, especially noticeable in the first movement, which McGegan and his team play with appropriate vigor. Timpani in a period band always punctuate the music in such a commanding manner, and the PBO offer some of the best; that big, familiar opening tune never sounded better. Arranged in six movements, the Serenade No. 1 adds a robust pair of Scherzos to the general design for serenades set forth by Mozart.

Interestingly, perhaps surprisingly, McGegan adopts some fairly traditional tempos throughout the piece, never resorting to the kind of hell-bent-for-leather approach taken by some other period-instruments ensembles. In fact, the timings for McGegan’s rendering of both Serenades are within seconds, more or less, of the aforementioned conductors, with just a tad more bounce in the step of the PBO. Moreover, the long central Adagio has never seemed more moving or more faintly melancholic. Then, the ensuing Minuetto, Scherzo and finale blend in perfectly with everything that has gone before, bringing the Serenade to a glorious, rousing close.

The recordings come to us from 2010 (No. 1) and 2012 (No. 2), both made live at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, California. First Congregational has always sounded like a fairly lively acoustical venue to me, and in the past, the PBO’s live recordings there have been a bit too brightly reverberant for my taste. However, this time the engineers miked things a little closer and obtained a more flattering response. The sound of the Second Serenade is especially smooth, although neither Serenade appears quite as well detailed and transparent as the PBO’s studio productions. There is a pleasingly warm glow around the instruments in both cases, though, and while orchestral depth suffers somewhat from the close miking, the stage width no doubt benefits, so we get a nice, big sonic picture. Anyway, No. 2 doesn’t really sound “live,” but No. 1, recorded two years earlier, does sound live; one can hear and sense the presence of an audience, chiefly at the beginning of the piece, during the quietest passages, and, of course, during an unfortunate eruption of applause at the end. Still, as I say, the sound is warm and accommodating, not at all bright or excessively reflective, making for an easygoing listening experience.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

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 Jon 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, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings 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 they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

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.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa