Brahms: Serenades 1 and 2 (CD review)

Also, Academic Festival Overture; Tragic Overture; Haydn Variations. Heinz Bongartz, Dresden Philharmonic; Gunter Herbig, Berlin Symphony Orchestra; Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos, London Symphony Orchestra. Brilliant Classics 95073 (2-CD set).

You could say Heinz Bongartz and the Dresden Philharmonic take the long view of Brahms's two Serenades. Such a long view, in fact, that the music requires two separate CD's to accommodate them. I mention this because many other recordings manage to fit both serenades onto a single disc. Well, at least we get some good fill-up material in the Academic Festival Overture, Tragic Overture, and Haydn Variations. The question is whether buyers will want to cough up the price of two discs for reissued recordings that are now some fifty years old and were never exactly classic performances in the first place.

Disc one contains only the first serenade. It's a little over fifty-two minutes long. To give you some idea how slow that is, the three comparison versions I had on hand were some ten to fifteen minutes shorter than that. Now, if Maestro Bongartz had taken his time in order to expand upon the poetry of the work, I could understand his leisurely approach. But to my ears, Bongartz's performance doesn't sound particularly poetic. Just slow. Although the word "uncommitted" might be a good choice to describe Bongartz's interpretation, I'm not sure that would be fair. I don't believe any musician sets out purposely to produce a boring or substandard performance. So I'm sure Bongartz had something in mind when he took the approach he did; I'm just not sure what it was.

Anyway, we might start with a bit of history. As many of you 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 while he was still a young man. No matter; his Serenade No. 1 is pretty close to a symphony, and it's almost the match of most of the composer's later orchestral material, even if it did predate the première of his actual symphonic output by nearly twenty years.

Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 11, between 1857 and 1859. Its six movements should sound gentle, warm, lyrical, and always cheerful, in essence a youthful work, the composer stringing together a seemingly never-ending series of charming melodies. Wikipedia notes that "serenades are typically calm, light music," and certainly that would describe Maestro Bongartz's reading if only the performance sounded more lyrical instead of being quite so leaden.

After a fairly slow start, Bongartz does enliven the spirit of the piece a bit, but even then it seems more than a little mechanical, as though he and the orchestra were merely going through the motions without much actual enthusiasm for the project. Even the Scherzo, which should be vibrant and alive, seems relatively subdued, almost sedate. Needless to say, the Adagio appears practically moribund. For me, the best parts of Bongartz's performance come at the end, where he seems to have warmed up to the enterprise.

Heinz Bongartz
Brahms wrote the Serenade No. 2 in A, Op. 16, in 1859, scoring it for chamber orchestra. It is briefer than his first serenade, and Maestro Bongartz renders it with a dash more enthusiasm than he mustered for the first serenade. Perhaps Bongartz became better attuned to the elements, except in the opening movement, where he still lags as he did in the first serenade. Or perhaps it just took the conductor a while to get started. From the second movement to the end, Bongartz hits his stride and maintains a good, animated rhythm.

I mostly like the reissues Brilliant Classics produces. The folks there usually choose truly classic performances in above-average sound. Here, not so much. Whatever, there are better recordings than Bongartz's of the Brahms Serenades available from Kertesz (Decca), Haitink (Philips), Chailly (Decca), McGegan (PHP, on period instruments). And, what's more, they fit both works on a single disc.

So, that leaves the couplings: Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos leading the London Symphony Orchestra in a fairly lively and entertaining performance of the Academic Festival Overture; and Gunter Herbig leading the Berlin Symphony Orchestra in acceptably invigorating and often endearing renderings of the Tragic Overture and the Haydn Variations. Whether these fill-ups are enough to sell someone on the whole package, I couldn't say.

The music derives from recordings made in 1962 (Serenades), 1978 (Tragic Overture), 1979 (Haydn Variations), and 1989 (Academic Festival Overture). Licensed from Phoenix Music Ltd., Brilliant Classics reissued the music in 2015. The sound comes across as very broad, well spread across the sound stage, with an especially wide dynamic range. There is also an excellent midrange response, quite transparent. Unfortunately, this clarity comes at the expense of a rather forward, bright high end and a somewhat overly lean bass, especially in the serenades (but not as much in the overtures and variations). So, even here, you won't find the absolute best you can get in this repertoire.


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

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Meet the Staff

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 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, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 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 simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I 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 an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. 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 remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom 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, Contributing Reviewer

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 First Symphony. 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 that 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. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa