> Johannes Brahms - Serenades Nos. 1 & 2 [TH]: Classical CD Reviews- Aug 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No.1 in D major, Op. 11 (1859)
Serenade No.2 for Small Orchestra in A major, Op. 16 (1859)
London Symphony Orchestra/Michael Tilson Thomas
Recorded c.1985


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Discs of these two youthful but important works are becoming quite common. Such is their melodic appeal, their increasing stature in the Brahms canon, and the convenience of fitting neatly onto a single disc, that record companies are homing in on them. As with some of Mozartís serenades, the title is somewhat misleading, and though there are many sunny and light-hearted gestures in the pieces, a glance at the overall timing tells the listener that these are weighty, large-scale works. Also, this being Brahms, every ray of sun is balanced by darker shadows, and these exceptional performances bring that Romantic dichotomy out perfectly.

Both Serenades are essentially dry runs for Brahmsís foray into the daunting world of symphonic writing. Tilson Thomas keeps things moving, and, more importantly, keeps a tight rein on what can often emerge as unwieldy structures. This is especially true of the D Major, which has no less than six movements. Whilst it embraces music of an open, sunny nature and easy inspirational flow, it underwent what the booklet calls Ďa cautionary gestation periodí. It started out as a three-movement work, evolving into a large-scale Nonet for wind and strings, before reaching its final form. The composer wholeheartedly draws on his great forebears, particularly Beethoven and Schubert, but one can easily detect an original voice emerging. MTT has the London Symphony Orchestra phrasing elegantly, and draws out appropriate parallels with the great Second Symphony to come. This is especially marked in the long opening movement, where he observes the important exposition repeat, revealing a wonderful Ďout-of-doorsí feeling. By contrast, the mysterious half-lights of the D minor scherzo which follows have one thinking way ahead to the melancholic older Brahms. The finale has a dynamism inherited again from Haydn and Beethoven, and Tilson Thomas pushes his band on to a glorious conclusion.

The Second Serenade, which had filled Clara Schumann with such enthusiasm, gets an even finer reading. Although cast in a five-movement structure, Brahms is beginning to show more mastery of form, with compactness and integration being the watchwords here. MTT adopts a beautifully flowing tempo, letting Brahmsís glorious melodies unfold with complete naturalness. The LSOís wind players have a field day in the scherzo, and rich, sonorous strings illuminate the lively Rondo finale.

Make no mistake, these are richly satisfying readings, recorded in splendid digital sound, though the booklet tells us nothing of this. There are medium price and budget rivals, notably Haitink on Philips, Francesco DíAvalos and the Philharmonia on ASV, and a highly regarded IMP disc from Dirk Joeres and the West German Sinfonia. But my inclination is to say that, irrespective of price, this disc is a clear winner, and in its new super-budget format should not be missed.

Tony Haywood


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