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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No 1 in D Op 11 (1858-1860) [45:21]
Serenade No 2 in A Op 16 (1858-1860) [33:35]
Capella Augustina/Andreas Spering
rec. Studio Solberserstrasse, Köln, 7-10 September 2005
CPO 7773002 [79:01] 
Experience Classicsonline

Even if the answer to the question Aimez-vous Brahms? is normally an emphatic Non! you may well feel more enthusiastic about these two early Serenades. Although there are plentiful hints of the later composer, they both have the very fresh character of a young composer full of ideas, even if not all are very new. Both were written before the composer had dared to attempt a Symphony; they are indeed his first orchestral works. The first was originally intended as a Nonet for wind and strings, and, despite rescoring for orchestra with double woodwind, four horns and two trumpets, it retains a very characteristic sound, especially as heard here, which owes much to such earlier composers as Haydn and Schubert. Despite this and the frequent episodes characteristic of the mature composer, there is also a delightfully rustic quality at times which seems to have something in common with that of many of Mahler’s earlier works.

The second Serenade is for somewhat smaller forces, with only two horns and no trumpets, but its most unusual feature is the absence of violins. Although this is not dissimilar in its scoring to Dvořák’s later Serenade in D minor for wind with cello and double bass its character is wholly different, and these two works do indeed make a fascinating contrast. 

Both of Brahms’ Serenades have occasional sections that can seem overlong – in particular the second movement of the first Serenade which last over 15 minutes here – but this is more the case of a young composer trying out new structures than of natural longwindedness. 

Both works gain immensely from the use of period instruments, although now that we can take virtually for granted playing that is in tune and has no less proficiency than would be the case with modern instruments the difference is not as marked as it once would have been. Even here, though, there are big gains in clarity of texture and in the delightfully differentiated tones of the different instruments. Indeed, the only possibly doubtful aspects of these performances are a few moments, such as the Coda to the first movement of Second Serenade, when the conductor appears to be applying rubato rather than allowing it to occur as a natural response to the music. It does not happen often, and perhaps it is because of this that it feels less natural when it does happen.

I have not compared them with the various alternatives currently available, but in general these are fresh performances making the most of the music’s youthful qualities. The disc is well recorded, has good notes by Silke Schloen, and is well filled, albeit at the expense of the first movement repeat in the First Serenade. I strongly recommend it, either as a sole recording of these works, or as an interesting alternative to performances in a more autumnal vein on modern instruments.

John Sheppard


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