Brahms: Serenades (CD review)

Riccardo Chailly, Gewandhausorchester. Decca 478 6775.

A big-name record label (Decca). A big-name conductor (Chailly). A big-name orchestra (the Gewandhaus). And a non-live recording. Seems like old times. Especially since Decca also just announced a new, five-year recording contract with the Montreal Symphony. All of this comes as a welcome relief from the constant stream of "live" orchestral recordings we've seen in recent years, complete with one-dimensional, close-up sonics. I recognize it's expensive to record the bigger symphony orchestras in the studio anymore, so kudos to Decca for trying to keep the old tradition alive.

Speaking of old, just how old is the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra? They trace their origins to 1743, making them one of the oldest ensembles in the world. In 1835 Felix Mendelssohn became the Music Director; it's that old. The Gewandhaus Orchestra's history includes such other notable conductors as Arthur Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Václav Neumann, Kurt Masur, and Herbert Blomstedt. Its current Music Director, Riccardo Chailly, has been in the post since 2005.

Having completed his recordings of the Brahms symphonies for Decca, Chailly now turns his attention to the two Serenades. As you probably know, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) didn't complete his first symphony until he was in his early forties, supposedly because of the intimidating shadow of Beethoven. In the meantime, the closest he came was contenting himself with writing two Serenades in the late 1850's. No matter; his Serenade No. 1 is pretty close to a symphony, and it's the match for most of the composer's other orchestral material, even if it did predate the première of his symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, between 1857 and 1859. Its six movements are alternately gentle, warm, lyrical, and always cheerful, 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 quite delightful, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies.

Now, how well you respond to Maestro Chailly's interpretation of the music may depend on your definition of a "serenade." Wikipedia notes that in music "serenades are typically calm, light music. The word serenade is the translation of the Italian word serenata, derived from the word sereno, which means 'calm.'" In the Romantic period, "usually the character of the work is lighter than other multiple-movement works for large ensemble (for example the symphony), with tunefulness being more important than thematic development or dramatic intensity." Chailly apparently sees dramatic intensity as more important than mere tunefulness, however, and his readings are rather quick-paced, with a strong emphasis on dynamic contrasts. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and it can be quite exciting. It's just little different.

Riccardo Chailly
What Chailly does best is catch the exhilaration of the young Brahms (remember, the composer was still in his twenties when he wrote both his serenades). The fleet-footed tempos and constantly varying rubato and dynamics make for a pleasantly animated performance. Chailly has apparently chosen the risk of turning off a few old-timers accustomed to a more-tranquil Brahms in exchange for blazing a new trail into a more-vibrant Brahms. The only time I thought his high-speed approach worked less than well was in the closing movement, where the gusto is there but little of the Brahmsian charm I expected. Still, more power to Chailly for trying something out of the ordinary.

Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16, in 1859 and premiered it in 1860. It's shorter than No. 1, about half its length and in five movements, the tone slightly darker and less outgoing, if still youthful and spirited. Among the special appeals of the Second Serenade is its scoring for chamber orchestra in which the winds predominate, omitting trumpets, trombones, percussion, and violins. The remaining strings lend the wind instruments a pleasantly dusky shading.

I found Chailly's handling of the Second Serenade more to my personal liking than his dealing with the First. Here, the Second sheds some of its darkness and emerges more sunnily vibrant. Chailly also seems to find a more lyrical elegance in the music than he did in the First Serenade. Even the Adagio has a more graceful flow than in the earlier piece and the finale a robust rhythm. Very nicely done.

As much as I admired some of Chailly's work in the Serenades, however, I would hesitate to recommend his recording as a first choice in this repertoire. My own favorites remain Bernard Haitink and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Istvan Kertesz and the London Symphony (Decca), and for a period-instrument rendition, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (PBP). They all exhibit a greater degree of tranquil serenity, youthful exuberance, and all-around good cheer. Nevertheless, for brawnier, more energetic realizations of these works, Chailly certainly fills the bill.

Producer John Fraser and engineer Philip Siney recorded the Serenades at the Gewandhaus Leipzig in May 2014. The sound appears nicely distanced, not too far away as to obscure inner detail or become too resonant or dull and not too close as to lose all dimensionality. There is, in fact, a decent sense of front-to-back depth as well as left-to-right spread, although one still notices the multi-miking on occasion. This is, in short, typical Decca sound, with good frequency and dynamic ranges and just the right amount of soft warmth. While it hasn't the ultimate midrange transparency, the deepest bass, or the most extended highs I've ever heard, it is a big, full, fairly smooth and comfortable sound that makes for easy listening.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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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.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa