Album du jour: Riccardo Chailly & Gewandhaus Orchestra, “Brahms Serenades”


Johannes Brahms’s two youthful Serenades (he was in his mid-twenties when he wrote them from 1857-60) are best heard not as foreshadowing his four Symphonies, but rather as following in the tradition of serenades, divertimenti and related works by Haydn, Mozart and the young Beethoven (e.g., the very popular Septet). Light but not insubstantial, with extra helpings of minuets and scherzos, and well-ventilated by delectable woodwind scoring — the second even eschews violins in order to accent the winds — the Serenades make for ideal listening on a warm summer day. Or, I’m sure you’ll also find, on a miserable February evening.

Following up on their superb 2013 set of the Brahms Symphonies (my rave review here), Maestro Riccardo Chailly and the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig give us as fine a recorded pairing of these refreshing works as I’ve heard. I couldn’t describe these performances any better than I did those of the symphonies (i.e., I’m too lazy to come up with anything new to say), so to quote myself:

Rich, sleek, clear, focused, balanced, the sound of the orchestra, brilliantly captured by the Decca engineers, is worth the price of the set itself, and one of the finest I’ve ever heard on an orchestral recording.  The strings play as if one, with enough vibrato to enrich the tone but not so much as to thicken it.  The winds sing sweetly, with just the right measure of central European woodiness.  The horns, so crucial to the Brahms sonority, move from mellow to brassy at the drop of a downbeat…

The essential rightness of the sound is matched by the pacing of the music as well.  On the speedometer, Chailly’s tempos would be slightly faster than average, but I can’t think of one time where the tempo sounded pushed or forced.  Of course, it’s not at what tempo you play the music, it’s how you play it at that tempo.  And as we’ve heard from some of those who’ve attempted to conduct Brahms “his” way and on instruments from his time (I’m thinking especially of Sir Roger Norrington), even the sprightliest tempo sounds stodgy when enforced inflexibly and metronomicaly.  Chailly?  Flexibility personified.  Every line shaped, every phrase considered, the music flows as naturally as speech, but also as unpredictably as a stream.  You’re drawn into the music, as if it were an unfolding drama — which, of course, it is — and never let down for a moment…

So yes, while some classical music makes me cry “aaaaugh,” there’s still some that makes me go “aaah….”

DOWNLOAD NOTE: For those who prefer immediate gratification (and who wouldn’t when it’s easily available?), this album is available for download from Presto Classics in multiple audio formats, including the super-fancy spread that some of my friends (Booker) prefer. The Spotify playlist for sampling is below; it’s also available for high-quality streaming on Tidal, though I can’t (or don’t know how to) embed Tidal playlists into the blog.

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