August 30, 2007


Brahms: Symphony No. 1; Variations on a Theme of Haydn (Chorale St. Antoni). Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marek Janowski. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

Brahms: Serenades No. 1, Op. 11, and No. 2, Op. 16. Gewandhaus Orchester Leipzig conducted by Kurt Masur. PentaTone. $19.99 (SACD).

      Brahms experimented with several fairly large-scale orchestral works, among them the Haydn Variations and the two Serenades, before finally producing his First Symphony. Musicologists still argue whether the composer hesitated to undertake symphonic form because of Beethoven’s shadow (of which Brahms was certainly aware) or because he felt a need to develop his own musical language more thoroughly before creating a full-fledged symphonic work. There may well be elements of truth in both views. In any case, the practice pieces, if that is what they were, are wonderful in themselves; and by the time Brahms did produced a full-fledged symphony, he was clearly already a master of the form.

      There have been many recordings of the four Brahms symphonies, and the cycle now being started by Marek Janowski and the Pittsburgh Symphony promises to be a top-notch one. This orchestra rose to its heights thanks to the collaborative style of William Steinberg, who led it from 1952 to 1976 in a manner almost diametrically opposed to that of his more autocratic contemporary, George Szell, in Cleveland. For a time, the best orchestras in the United States were these two and the Boston Symphony. Today, despite many different personnel, the Pittsburgh Symphony retains much of the warmth and apparently effortless sectional balance for which it was renowned. Janowski takes full advantage of the orchestra’s strengths in the Brahms First. The first movement’s introduction is warm and grand, with especially good wind/brass contrast and balance – indeed, the brass is outstanding throughout. The movement’s main section is propulsive if a touch lacking in grandeur. The Andante Sostenuto is more Andante than Sostenuto, but the slightly brisk pace works well, and the very sweet oboe is a big plus. Two-thirds of the way through the movement, the contrast between horn and violin is particularly affecting and well played. The delicate and charming third movement gives way to a very dramatic start of the finale, where PentaTone’s outstanding SACD sound is particularly helpful: brass warmth, string pizzicati, horns and much more all come through clearly and cleanly. Passionate strings and prominent brass are featured in the movement’s main section, whose intensity builds toward a strong, well-balanced conclusion.

      The Haydn Variations (still so-called even though the Chorale St. Antoni that Haydn used was apparently not written by him) also sound wonderful here. The relaxed, flowing opening is filled with excellent playing; its predominant impression is of warmth and expansiveness. By the time of the first Vivace variation, the faster tempo is a real contrast, and the second Vivace is quite fleet-footed. The slower Grazioso variation that follows is perhaps a little tense, but the work’s conclusion is strong and celebratory.

      Janowski’s recording was made earlier this year. Kurt Masur’s performances of the two orchestral serenades date to 1981, but they scarcely sound any less clear. This recording is one of those being released by PentaTone in their original four-channel format, a commercial failure that was so far ahead of its time that it sounds as good as anything being produced digitally today. Of the two serenades, it is the first, in six movements and for large orchestra, that most clearly anticipates Brahms’ symphonies. The Leipzig Gewandhaus players give Masur a broad and expansive first movement, filled with vivid details, and a beautifully flowing second movement, with especially warm strings. In the third movement, marked “Adagio non troppo,” Masur is certainly “non troppo,” producing a movement that is more pretty than profound, but still convincing. The fourth movement is delicate, with amusing bassoon details. The fifth, marked “Scherzo (Allegro),” is broader and larger-scale than usual and a touch slow. The finale is a large-scale, emphatic conclusion with attractively delicate treatment of the second theme.

      The second serenade, in five movements, is altogether quieter, more like chamber music, and its sonorities are unusual: Brahms omits the violins, as Bach did in his sixth Brandenburg concerto. The first movement here is gentle and flowing; the second, speedy and light, with attractive wind passages. The third movement – marked “Adagio non troppo,” like the slow movement of the first serenade – is lilting, then dramatic, with strong horn work, and sounds clearly like this work’s centerpiece. The fourth movement is gentle, with pleasant bounce, while the bustling finale often sounds like someone other than Brahms: there is a little Sir Arthur Sullivan here and a touch of Irish dance.

      Taken together, these two excellently recorded SACDs offer fine renditions of three of Brahms’ pre-symphonic orchestral works, as well as the first symphony, for which the earlier works may have been studies.

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