Louise FARRENC (1804-1875) Nonet in E flat, Op. 38 [31:00]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897) Serenade in D, Op. 11 (original version reconstructed by Alan Boustead) [37:25]
Minerva Chamber Ensemble/Kevin Geraldi
rec. 4, 8, 9 March 2009, Recital Hall, University of North Carolina—Greensboro, USA
CENTAUR CRC 3092 [68:25]
Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 is the composer’s first orchestral work — or that is how we are used to it. It was originally written as a nonet for violin, viola, cello, bass and winds, albeit with a second clarinet instead of an oboist, the odd forces apparently dictated by the musicians present at the court of Prince Leopold II in Detmold, for whom Brahms wrote the work. Eventually the nonet was adapted to the complete Detmold orchestra, still a small band, and then upgraded yet again to a serenade for full orchestra.
Though Brahms destroyed the original nonet score as part of his obsessive eradication of apparently unsatisfactory youthful works, scholar Alan Boustead has reconstructed the work, based on letters written to Joseph Joachim, fairly clear indications that one of the scherzi was newly composed for the later orchestral version, and the relatively straightforward manner in which Brahms appeared to handle the increases in ensemble size. Indeed, the surprising thing about hearing the “Brahms Nonet” is that it really sounds just like the work we’re used to, only with one instrument per part. Most of the best solos are unchanged, and the heft of the full orchestra is never missed. Really, when you’ve listened to this recording a few times, you start to realize that the “regular” Serenade does sound rather a lot like chamber music. Here, then, one might say the music has been stripped of its pretense. It is fresh, lively, and, in the adagio which is its heart, so exquisitely scored one would never guess this is a reconstruction, let alone something Brahms would have wanted to bury.
The other work on this disc is maybe even more exciting a find. Jeanne-Louise Farrenc overcame a good bit of sexism to become the first female professor at the Paris Conservatoire. She even drew high praise from some of her most distinguished male colleagues; though back-handed in some cases: Berlioz rather cruelly said her work was “very good, for a woman’s”. It’s not hard to imagine a more equal world placing Farrenc’s three symphonies, available on CPO, alongside Schumann’s. Her music has impressive dramatic shape and power and she has great command of classical structures.
Her Nonet in E flat confirms the impression; it is terrific. It begins with a substantial introduction with shades of Schubert. There will later be a hint of Mendelssohn in the scherzo, and Beethoven is never far off, but the important thing to stress here is that this is very striking music, original in its language and distinctively Farrenc’s own. The first movement ends with a surprising violin cadenza. The andante is a set of variations with colorful solo licks for all nine players. The scherzo simply rocks with a buoyant good cheer. The finale is rather more conventional than the inner movements, in that I suppose it keeps its enthusiasm a bit more buttoned-down, but there’s still pleasure here.
Listeners will no doubt be surprised at how naturally the Brahms, placed second on the disc, flows out from the Farrenc. Would the young Johannes have known the work? One certainly wonders. If he did, he could have hardly chosen a better contemporary example for his nonet-serenade. Another prominent one would have been Spohr’s from forty years earlier.
The Minerva Chamber Ensemble, a group of American orchestral and chamber musicians, plays perfectly well under the coordinating hand of Kevin Geraldi. A couple of fractionally shaky moments for oboe (Farrenc) or ensemble (near the end of Brahms mvt I) are overcome by the sheer pleasure which everyone obviously has with this music. Their enthusiasm is well-communicated and the sound quality is good, although the sound cuts off immediately after each movement’s final note, so the slight lack of warmth or reverb is noticeably odd on good headphones. A few wind players can be heard breathing but it’s not distracting. Overall I’d count this a very enjoyable disc. Buy it for the curiosity of the Brahms, stay for the warmth and wit of Louise Farrenc.
Brian Reinhart
Buy it for the curiosity of the “Brahms Nonet”; stay for the warmth and wit of Louise Farrenc.