CD Review: Johannes Brahms – Serenades

On December 17, 2012 |
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By JAMES R. OESTREICH

There are champions of Brahms’s relatively youthful Serenade in A (Op. 16), and with good reason. Scored without violins, it offers particularly piquant writing for the woodwinds and single-handedly gives the lie, if such were still needed, to Hugo Wolf’s canard that Brahms could not exult. But I love the Serenade in D (Op. 11) beyond reasonable measure. It is more symphonic in conception, though without the weight and textural density of Brahms’s own symphonies.

I especially love it in Istvan Kertesz’s Decca recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, which was alone in the catalog for almost a decade, and which remains the standard. For all the great work Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque have done in music of their nominal era, I didn’t expect in this period-instrument account anything like a rival to Kertesz. In the end it is not; it misses the ineffable warmth of the Kertesz recording: the way, for example, the plunging bass line radiates heat in the subsidiary theme of the Adagio. Still, Mr. McGegan’s effort is wonderful.