Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 1 in D major Op. 11 (1858-60) [39:09]
Serenade No. 2 in A major Op. 16 (1858-60) [26:09]
Gewandhaus Orchester, Leipzig/Riccardo Chailly
rec. 2014, Gewandhaus zu Leipzig
DECCA 478 6775 [65:19]
Following his success with the Brahms concertos and symphonies it is not surprising that Chailly has turned his attention to the Serenades. These, along with the D minor piano concerto, are the composer’s earliest orchestral works. They are not often heard in concert but Brahmsians like them and they have had several recordings. Brahms wrote them while he was working as a court musician in Detmold, before his move to Vienna.

These serenades are in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart. For them, as Donald Tovey said, a serenade was “a symphony in cheerful style with a large number of movements”. He could have added that serenades were often intended for performance in the open air and as civilized background music to accompany the leisure of aristocrats. Brahms’ serenades are definitely concert music but they have retained the generally cheerful style and a larger number of movements than the symphonies. The result is that they are both quite long and can be heard as trial runs for his symphonies. They are, however, masterpieces in their own right. You can hear debts to Haydn and early Beethoven but in no way do they detract from the originality and mastery of what Brahms offers here.

I was disconcerted by the first movement of No 1 when I first heard this performance. It was not the fast speed: this is specified by Brahms and is needed to retain the momentum through a long movement. In any case Chailly slackens almost imperceptibly at moments of repose. No, it was the overall balance of the orchestra, with an emphasis on the drone base with which it opens and which frequently recurs. Consulting the score and listening again I find that Chailly is exactly right, following the markings and exercising the ear for orchestral colour, which was so evident in his recordings of the French and Russian repertory, in this very different idiom. It is interesting and surprising that Brahms wrote two scherzos for this first serenade, and another for the second, when he rather avoided the form in his symphonies. This first one is fleeting and shadowy, like an anticipation of that in Mahler’s seventh symphony, written nearly fifty years later. The slow movement provides an opportunity to enjoy the fine solo and choir work from the woodwinds, with the German-style clarinets noteworthy. The tiny minuet which follows is a reminder that this work started life as a nonet for solo wind and strings. The second scherzo is full of echoes of Beethoven and is an exercise in his most vigorous style. The final rondo is on a grand scale with a number of rhythmic traps in it.

Serenade No 2 is unusual for omitting violins from the orchestra. The result is that this is a work which features wind instruments – as eighteenth century serenades often did – while also giving opportunities to the strings from time to time. The effect is not sombre, but as of evening rather than daytime. I was captivated by this performance, because Chailly gets the mood exactly right, following which everything falls into place. The opening Allegro moderato is full of Brahmsian fingerprints - passages in thirds, a triple time second subject and a prominent role for the oboe. The scherzo is another Beethovenian one, both terse and short. The slow movement has a huge triple time theme but Chailly keeps it moving – the days of slow, sluggish Brahms are clearly over. The Quasi Menuetto which follows is really Brahms’ answer to the Beethoven-type scherzo: a dancing movement with the winds playing in thirds but lyrical rather than either playful or ferocious. What it is not is a minuet. The Finale was described by Tovey as “pure merry-go-round” but he went on to say “it is the merry-go-round as enjoyed by the child, not as exposed by the realist”. Brahms adds a piccolo to the score and its squeals add to the enjoyment.

For comparison I turned to two older versions. Kertész recorded the serenades in 1967 with the London Symphony Orchestra, available on Eloquence both as an individual disc (466 676-2) and in a set of all Kertész’ Decca Brahms recordings (480 4839). The recording now sounds its age but the performances are fine in a quite different way from Chailly’s, not because of his speeds, which are not that different, but because of the very different sound of the LSO compared to the Leipzigers. The English strings are fully the equal of their German counterparts but the wind have a much brighter sound: not only do they play on a different style of instrument but they also have a different, though equally valid, ideal of sound. Haitink’s Concertgebouw versions were made in 1976 and 1980 (review); they are also analogue recordings but they still sound fine in a view of these works quite close to Chailly’s. I haven’t heard Abbado’s versions which date from the 1980s and are early digital.

I should put in a word of praise for the sleeve-note by Peter Korfmacher, idiomatically translated by Richard Evidon. He describes and characterizes the works well and elicits some really illuminating comments from Chailly. On the other hand I wish the Decca designers could come up with something more imaginative than a mugshot of Chailly for the cover. He is a fine conductor but nothing to look at. I would have liked a picture of the castle at Detmold, where Brahms worked while he was composing these serenades.

If you want the serenades in a fine modern recording, and every Brahmsian who loves the symphonies should acquire them, then Chailly’s new version is now the one to go for.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: Michael Cookson

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