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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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