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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 1 in D major, Op. 11 [43:41]
Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16 [28:52]
Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Jaime Martín
rec. 2015, Gävle Concert Hall, Sweden
Booklet notes in English & German
ONDINE ODE1291-2 [72:33]

The Brahms serenades seem a perfect fit to that compliment “what’s not to like?”. On first hearing them many moons ago, they became firm favourites and I wondered why they weren’t programmed more often. Then finally sitting through the first of them in concert, decently enough played, I found myself mostly studying the auditorium ceiling and wondering what possessed me to think they would make good concert fare. The obvious then dawned on me that my enjoyment of these works was associated with other stimuli – good food, good company, a good book perhaps – and they were, indeed, serenades as billed – maybe more sophisticated and symphonic than their predecessors from Mozart and Haydn, but still essentially “a musical greeting, usually performed out of doors in the evening, to a beloved or person of rank” (New Grove). A better class of background music, perhaps. Also for the young Brahms, the serenades were key compositional steps in his growth as a symphonist.

If the ambience of this new disc by the Gävle Symphony Orchestra isn’t quite of the open air, the spirit of the playing certainly is. Spaciously recorded in the Gävle Concert Hall, the First Serenade’s opening Allegro molto has a rustic good humour which reminds one that this orchestra would have like-minded music of the Scandinavian composers in its blood. With a nominal strength of 52 players, the Gävle orchestra at times sounds a little light-on for strings, most notably in the cellos, but with excellent winds and a buoyant togetherness, they bring an uplifting freshness and renewed pleasure to this music. The Scherzo begins as intriguingly as ever, that theme with all its latent possibilities never seeming to reach its full potential. If the enigmatic smile of conductor Jaime Martín on the CD cover suggests he has something special up his sleeve, don’t be misled, but be prepared as he and his players keep pouring on the charm; the Adagio flowing so naturally and serenely, onto the poise and grace of the Minuetto interludes, before the high spirits of the two final movements bring the work to a joyous close.

If anything, the second serenade seems even better suited to the Gävle orchestra’s size and strengths, with its complement of double woodwinds, two horns, and a string ensemble without violins. While this appears to signal a darker sound and atmosphere, it’s nothing of the sort from the Swedish players, with rich and radiant winds, in beautifully pointed, sunny expression. Brahms, it is said, in later years held this serenade in particular regard, both as a nod to the past and a precursor of his symphonic works. Martín ensures the full value and foresight of Brahms’ scoring is realised, at tempos that seem just right.

With tempos in mind, it’s as well to consider the alternative recordings, a natural choice being the Decca versions of 1967 with István Kertész and the London Symphony Orchestra (review), and of 2014 with Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester, Leipzig (review ~ review ~ review). While I usually hesitate to make timings central to such comparisons, in this case they are quite instructive, and align with my impressions. Looking at both works, Martín (43:41 + 28:52) sits between Kertész (46:27 + 29:16) and Chailly (39:09 + 26:09), but biased more towards Kertész for each serenade. And indeed, Martín and his Gävle players have the freshness and unforced spontaneity that also mark the Kertész, but without quite the heft of the LSO. Decca’s sound for Kertész, though, is starting to show its age. That of course is no problem for Chailly, and one also has to marvel at the playing of his Leipzig orchestra, but I find his train-to-catch tempos do rob these delectable works of some of their appeal, and the repose you expect a serenade to provide. Then again, this approach may work well for live performance, and had I heard playing like this at the concert mentioned above, I might well have been more engaged.

In sum, the Gävle Symphony Orchestra under Jaime Martín give refreshing and well recorded accounts of the Brahms serenades. The competition can’t be ignored, and for some these performances, especially of the First Serenade, may seem a little scaled-down. But if nothing else, they win on sheer charm.

Des Hutchinson



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