Editor’s Choice, Orchestral  – June 2015

And the question remains – why aren’t Johannes Brahms’ Serenades staples of the concert repertoire? Would conductors rather cut to the chase and perform his four symphonies? Or is the truth more that, conceived when Brahms was grappling with the structural minefield of his First Symphony, those two works remain peculiarly difficult to classify? Ought conductors plot a quasi-symphonic pathway through their structures? Or in reality is each movement a self-contained character piece that would likely buckle under the pressure of a consciously symphonic treatment?

As Riccardo Chailly points out, Serenade No 1 clocks in at 40 minutes, longer than the symphonies, and no one should be lulled into any sense of false security. The Serenades might exhibit a lightness of surface, but underneath that whimsical charm Brahms’ orchestration, his rhythmic litheness and complex web of internal tempo relationships are difficult to achieve – darn difficult in fact.

Chailly’s mettle as a Brahms interpreter crystallised around his 2013 cycle of the symphonies: tempos rethought, textures thinned, traces of Germanic stodge erased. An approach that sets him up well for the Serenades; expect an artful fusion of dramatic contrast operating hand-in-hand with a certainty that Brahms’ melodic majesty is often enough.

“A fusion of dramatic contrast operates with a certainty that Brahms’ melodic majesty is enough”

The starting point, perhaps, for Chailly was his refreshing view of the Academic Festival Overture (included in his symphony cycle). The opening bassoon motif can sound laboured and pompous, more academic than festive. But Chailly re-injects humour, and the springy champagne of Serenade No 1’s Allegro Molto follows suit.

Forever a detail man, Chailly opens up Brahms’ orchestration. Removing that customary viscous orchestral claret, which regularly leads to aural gout, forces open the instrumental digestive system. French horn grinds against strings in the opening moments with a serrated edge; the solo clarinet fizzes as it passes its phrase to the oboe; the upper strings shine brilliantly. 

Compact and soberer, the five-movement structure of Serenade No 2 begins to feel positively symphonic. Again Chailly’s bright tempi help binds the whole together, the exquisitely tender lilt of the Adagio – time feeling suspended – balanced by the full-bodied rhythmic smack of the Rondo Finale. It’s quite a journey, Chailly reminding us that this music, which seems rooted in Mozart hits a contrapuntal intensity that anticipates Schoenberg. And the question therefore endures – why aren’t Brahms’ Serenades staples of the concert repertoire?



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