Robert FUCHS (1847-1927)
Serenade No. 1 in D, Op. 9 [19:45]
Serenade No. 2 in C, Op. 14 [16:06]
Andante grazioso and Capriccio, Op. 63 [17:34]
Cologne Chamber Orchestra/Christian Ludwig
rec. 11-15 November 2008, 6 March 2009, Deutschlandfunk Köln, Sendesaal, Germany
NAXOS 8.572222 [53:25]

Robert Fuchs was a composer who won high praise and close friendship from Johannes Brahms and who taught, at the Vienna Conservatory, students like Mahler, Wolf, Sibelius, and Korngold. He therefore could be rightly called one of the most unjustly forgotten musical figures of his time. One strand of Fuchs’ distinguished compositional career was a series of five light-hearted serenades for string orchestra, the first written at age 27. This rather short album brings together Fuchs’ first two serenades with a late Andante grazioso and Capriccio, which is, oddly, spelled incorrectly (“Capricco”) on the digital “album art” which came with my download.

The first serenade makes for consistently pleasing listening: it will not replace the masterpieces by Suk, Dvorák or Tchaikovsky, but it has many pleasures of its own. The piece might be viewed as a romantic-era divertimento, five movements of wit, charm, and Viennese grace. The opening sounds youthful in its bright-eyed, easy-going charm, and the fourth movement, an adagio, really is quite beautiful. The scherzo’s good humor reminded me of Fuchs’ contemporaries in the (J.) Strauss family.

The second serenade is if anything even more delightful, starting with the opening theme, which reminds me of something familiar which, after three listens, I still cannot quite put my finger on. But then, the best tunes have a way of seeming like an old friend no matter how new they are. The slow movement here is less precious and more probing than in the first, although the finale more than makes up for this with an extra spring in its step and a concise, catchy dance over the finish line. The Andante grazioso and Capriccio, Op 63, is not labeled as a serenade, and lack the frivolity of the two other works, but the two-movement piece is just as long. The andante is lyrical and has an emotional depth unique on the CD, maybe because it dares to explore more than one mood. The capriccio is also on the serious side; I found it rather dry.

As suggested earlier, fans of the serenade for strings as a genre, particularly those already familiar with the famous serenades of Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Dvorák, Suk, Wirén, and Grieg (Holberg Suite), really ought to give this recording a go. Fuchs’ music is never lacking in inspiration or appeal, and while this disc is not about to challenge anybody’s ears or draw attention for its profundity, it does provide quite a bit of pleasure. The only further encouragement I can give is to report that the Cologne Chamber Orchestra plays with a great sense of lightness and grace throughout and the sound quality is hard to criticize - even the double-basses come through crisply. I can only hope that the Serenades Nos. 3, 4 and 5 are soon to follow on another CD. If you simply cannot wait, the Fifth Serenade is already available on a CPO disc.

As a part of the Naxos Digital imprint, this album is currently only available for download at the website Classicsonline, where it sells for rather less than the price of a physical compact disc. Naxos informs me that they plan a CD release of these recordings for March 2011.

Brian Reinhart