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
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