WORKS: Serenades No. 1 in D major, Op. 11; Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op. 16
PERFORMER: Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly
CATALOGUE NO: 478 6775
Following their authoritative, and BBC Music Magazine Award-winning, set of the Brahms symphonies and overtures, Riccardo Chailly and his Gewandhaus Orchestra turn the warm glow of their spotlight on the composer’s two Serenades. Written when Brahms was in his mid 20s and employed at the court at Detmold, these are seldom-heard works that aren’t an obvious fit in modern concert programmes, and as such are arguably the works in this recording series that most benefit from Chailly’s advocacy. As much as being a precursor of orchestral things to come, they are substantial pieces in their own right, and they emerge irresistible thanks to the easy flow of Chailly’s conducting and the superb playing of his orchestra.
If there’s a sense that the Serenades hark back to late Haydn and the Beethoven of the Pastoral Symphony, they also point forward, and the musical fingerprints of the mature composer are everywhere audible – in the mercurial changes of mood, the long melodies passed seamlessly between instruments and the playfully changing phrase-lengths. The sunny opening passage of the Serenade No. 1 in D major begins with a bouncy horn solo, grows to a high full-orchestra unison and then descends, adding a minor-key inflection: we are, if you like, standing outside Beethoven’s hunting lodge, but the way the clouds are dappling the spring sunshine is all Brahms.
At times like this the Serenade No. 1 seems like a dry run for Brahms’s four symphonies, and it is certainly symphonic in length: it takes 39 minutes, even considering the lick at which Chailly dispatches the Allegro molto first movement. And yet he never has to push his players; the momentum could be described as freewheeling, if it weren’t so deftly controlled. Big, propulsive crescendos dissolve into gossamer sweetness, and the woodwind playing is full of rustic yet graceful character.
The Serenade No. 2 in A major is scored without violins, but the change in palette is less a darkening than a mellowing; the music sounds golden, and the winds, perfectly blended, play with consummate smoothness. The tiny Scherzo second movement, which could so easily sound stodgy, dances by in a flash. The third, an Adagio, in which a solemn, almost churchy beginning blossoms into a yearning melody passed from the clarinet all around the orchestra, is treasurable.
In 1863, when the Vienna Philharmonic was rehearsing this work, the demands placed on the players by this Johnny-come-lately composer caused a near-mutiny. The Leipzig players, however, sound gloriously at ease and idiomatic throughout. Chailly and his orchestra own Brahms right now, and that is something few of their rivals could even attempt to challenge.