BRAHMS: Serenades No. 1 in D Major & No. 2 in A Major – Gewandhausorchester/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca

BRAHMS: Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11; Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16 – Gewandhausorchester/ Riccardo Chailly – Decca 478 6775, 65:19 (3/10/15) [Distr. by Universal] ****:

Recorded 22-30 May 2014, the two Brahms serenades under Riccardo Chailly constitute Decca’s first recordings of this music since the late Istvan Kertesz inscribed them in 1968. The 1857 D Major Serenade responds to the divertimentos of Mozart and Haydn, with a particular homage – in the opening drone effect – to the Haydn Symphony No. 104 “London.” Originally conceived as a nonet in the style of Hummel and Spohr, Brahms recast the work as a hybrid symphony-serenade. The idea of the piece containing two scherzos may pay homage to Schumann, who always liked to include two trios in his own scherzos. The coda of the first movement – taken by Chailly at a crisp Molto allegro, as indicated – involves a potent pedal D for 27 measures, an effect Brahms would employ once again in a baritone movement from his A German Requiem.

Chailly captures in the first – somewhat darkly hued – Scherzo the outdoor sensibility we likewise associate with the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. The resonant string and wind sound easily proves a model for the natural successor to Brahms, Antonin Dvorak. We have by now become quite alert to the Gewandhaus tympanist, who consistently drives the rhythmic pulse home. Bassoons and low strings, with horn, introduce the pearly Adagio non troppo in B-flat Major, a movement Chailly relishes for its wealth of melodic colors, that often involve clarinet, flute, and horn.

The subsequent pair of minuets embraces chamber music textures, although Chailly has already given us tender intimacy in the Adagio. The second of the minuets, in G Minor, proffers the kind of “free but lonely” motif that virtually defines the ethos of beauty in Brahms. The second – hunting-horn – Scherzo in D Major more than beckons to the rollicking Beethoven of the first two symphonies. The often witty Rondo: Allegro last movement virtually sails in Chailly’s spirited rendition, gushing with elan and deft articulation in strings and woodwinds. We have thoroughly enjoyed the superb resonance of the orchestra, illuminated by fine sound engineering from Philip Siney, Eike Boehm, and Hendrik Eibisch.

The more somberly scored Serenade in A Major dates from 1859, and it plays as a kind of experimental color-piece for winds and low strings. Chailly calls the music “an excursion into a pleasant shade.” Chailly takes the tempo, Allegro moderato as alla breve, so once more the music does not drag. The Gewandhaus capacity for a singing line – especially in the dominant viola part – has rarely enjoyed such sonic splendor. The move to the harmonically distant D-flat adds an expressive touch not soon forgotten. The ensuing Scherzo indulges in metric tricks and fine interplay in the winds. A similar rhythmic sleight of hand occurs in the 6/4 Quasi menuetto. Oboe and clarinet work a fine alchemy in the Adagio non troppo, which moves into some explosive, dark thoughts without undue sentimentality, and some luxurious riffs from the French horn, clarinet, and flute. The concluding Rondo: Allegro pushes Chailly’s reduced forces to the hilt, and they respond – alla breve – in virtuoso form. Once more indebted to the rustic dances in Beethoven’s Pastoral, the spirit of the music manages to reflect the light, glibly witty hands of Haydn and Mozart, complemented by high piccolo trills.

—Gary Lemco

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