Classical CD Reviews

BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A Major; Serenade No. 1 in D Major – Philharmonia Baroque/ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque

On its own Philharmonia Baroque Productions label, the eponymous ensemble under conductor McGegan delivers deeply satisfying realizations of the Brahms Serenades.

Published on September 29, 2012

BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A Major; Serenade No. 1 in D Major – Philharmonia Baroque/ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque

BRAHMS: Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16; Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 – Philharmonia Baroque/ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia Baroque PBP-05, 79:48 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****: 

Recorded 13-14 February 2010 (D Major) and 10-11 March 2012 (A Major), the two Brahms serenades make a striking contrast in textures, the D Major of 1858 Symphony-Serenade and the A Major (1859) Wind Serenade with string obbligato. The darker of the two serenades, that in A Major, opens the disc, with its distinct lack of violins and the Brahms formulaic triplets against a duple meter. The tunes modulate as far away as D-flat Major. The open-air quality of the writing in the manner of Mozart appeals to McGegan’s forces, who play with affectionate accuracy, given McGegan’s tendency to linger over a phrase. Equally piquant are the two dance movements on either side of the tender Adagio non troppo much beloved of Clara Schumann.  The jaunty, Czech Scherzo: Vivace has the Philharmonia Baroque flutes piping with the winds in vibrant cross rhythms.

McGegan takes special care with the central Adagio non troppo in A Minor, a theme and variations in the form of a passacaglia with a repeated bass that already points to the later Haydn Variations and Fourth Symphony last movement. The modulations take us to the relative C Major, the pulsating energy of the movement resonant and full-blooded in the strings and suave woodwinds. Marked Quasi menuetto, the fourth movement in D Major canters in a manner hardly courtly, but rather folksy like one of Hungarian Dances or the Black Forest side of Weber and Mendelssohn. The last movement Rondo: Allegro has been saving the piccolo part (Lars Johannesson) for this optimistic romp in shifting rhythms. The French horns and oboes make their respective marks, and violas luxuriate in the metric acrobatics whose exuberance belies whatever personal gloom may have inspired Brahms to pen this unusual exercise on orchestral virtuosity.

The Brahms D Major Serenade (originally scored as a nonet, now lost) has had several wonderful inscriptions that count among them conductors Leopold Stokowski, Thomas Scherman, Istvan Kertesz, and Robert Heger. McGegan’s opening, a soaring Allegro molto, plays for its unbuttoned pageantry, the drone effects and horn make an homage to the composer’s favorite Haydn Symphony No. 104. McGegan’s taking the first movement repeat broadens the experience by half, and the string work seems to gain elegance in the restatement. Oboe, clarinet, flute, and tympani combine for especially fertile hues in the course of the luxuriant melodies that play with quadruple and triple meter adjustments. The huge pedal on D at the devilishly lively coda prepares for its later appearance in A German Requiem. The last bars could be mistook for Dvorak without any sense of embarrassment.

Anticipating the same minor key roulades that will inform the Scherzo of the B-flat Major Piano Concerto, the second movement of the Serenade moves in rolling periods that might look ahead to his Third Symphony. The warmth of the Philharmonia Baroque strings breaks off for a hearty martial middle section that allows the winds to make individually pert colors. The central Adagio movement utilizes the bassoon, French horn, and strings in a manner that virtually defines the Brahms lyrical style. McGegan provides plenty of spaciousness for this opulent song, its gently rocking rhythm filling out a sonata form of epic proportions. The ensuing Menuetto I and II and Scherzo pay homage to Beethoven’s wit in the Pastoral Symphony. The bassoon work in Menuetto I lies a step away from Tchaikovsky’s Chinese Dance in The Nutcracker. The lovely Menuetto II allows McGegan’s strings to indulge in a lyrical G Minor.

The D Major Scherzo: Allegro all but quotes Beethoven’s Second Symphony. Played more marcato than my experience assumed, McGegan manages to instill a hearty girth in this music that proves most effective. The bumptious Rondo: Allegro finale extends the nuance of heavy tread, but the figures still move in the woodwinds with Mendelssohnian fervor, the strings milked for the Brahms sweetness. Timpanist Kent Reed has had a field day in both of these Brahms scores, and his contribution has added that ineffable degree of spice and athletic potency to these well-conceived readings of the composer’s fecund, early efforts in orchestral magic.

—Gary Lemco




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