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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 1 in D (1859-60) [46:47]
Serenade No. 2 in A (1860/75) [30:24]*
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Kurt Masur
rec. Leipzig, 1981; Paul-Gerhardt-Kirche, Leipzig, April and September 1980
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 442 8298 [77:20]


The first phrase we hear on this album nearly rules it out of court. The horn's dispirited intoning of Serenade 1's opening theme could, I imagine, send an overly sensitive listener spinning into depression. The phrase recurs twice - in the repeat of the exposition, and again to usher in the recapitulation - and each time, it takes all the wind out of the music's sails. 

Fortunately, this is unrepresentative of the performance as a whole. There's a nice sense of awakening as the clarinet picks up the theme and the sonority brightens; the ensuing tutti is enlivened by the strong presence of the supporting harmony. In the second theme (and elsewhere), Brahms's favored 2-against-3 rhythms are always precisely coördinated, yet flow naturally. The development's chirping woodwinds in the minor key suggest Dvořák, as does the flute's nostalgic take on the main theme in the coda.

After a few moments of uncertain scansion, the first Scherzo goes well, with the strings' legato melody again recalling Dvořák. Perhaps such passages indicate the true extent of the Slavic composer's debt to Brahms. Odd, though, that Masur's Brahms should sound more like Dvořák than his Dvořák: see my review of Philips Eloquence 476 7334 elsewhere on-site.

With the other four movements, there's no further confusion - we are clearly in Brahmsian territory. At first, the Adagio non troppo - moderately paced, as is everything else here - seems caught in its own textural intricacies, but builds steadily in intensity as it unfolds. The Menuetto is cheerfully bumpkinesque. The two unison horns ring out boldly at the start of the second Scherzo, but go limp in its return, the principal's malady apparently having spread to his partner. The final Rondo, its dotted rhythms sturdy and grounded rather than driving, rounds things off well.

The mellow, deep sound reproduction given this piece aptly suits the homogeneous, unified sonorities of this orchestra in its home territory - note that Philips doesn't specify the Gewandhaus itself as the session venue - and there's enough stereo spread to indicate, for example, when the first movement's second theme passes from the 'cellos to the violas. The resonance becomes cloudy at peak moments in the last two movements. 

The performance of Serenade 2 goes well. The playing is mostly alert and full-throated; the bass strings lumber through the opening phrases of the Adagio non troppo, but this time around, at least, the principal horn sounds interested and alert. The rather stark etching of the final Rondo - which has, in some hands, again recalled Dvořák - allows for some nice lyrical contrasts. But the recording, made a year earlier in a church, isn't as easy on the ears: there's more of the bright overtones that the later recording swallowed up, but  the loudest passages become a bit rowdy in the churchy ambience. 

I'm not sure what I'd recommend for these pieces. Boult (EMI) is properly artless in manner, but he takes the composer's Alla breve markings in the Adagios literally, which may raise a few eyebrows - though not mine. Kertész's agreeable readings (Decca), from his brief LSO tenure, are rhythmically a bit square; and on vinyl the sound was boxy, though I'd wager the old Weekend Classics transfer erred in the opposite direction. So the jury's still out; meanwhile it's worth hunting down Stokowski's surprisingly trim, disciplined account of Serenade 1 (Varčse Sarabande LP, MCA Double Decker CD). 

Stephen Francis Vasta



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