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.
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: