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Chailly’s Brahms Serenades

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Leonard Ip writes (translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee)

The relationship between Chailly and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig certainly bears some special sort of chemistry, given the success this musical marriage has enjoyed in these 10 years. Having recently recorded a complete Brahms cycle, Chailly and his Leipzig forces now turn to the two Serenades, and I must say that it has become my favorite Brahms Serenades recording to date.

Let’s first turn our attention to the works themselves. The two Serenades of Brahms certainly aren’t “miniatures”, and even though Chailly/Leipzig is probably the quickest extant recording of these works (even faster than Spering/Capella Augustina on CPO played on historical instruments, though that recording was on the slow side to begin with), he still takes 40 minutes for the first and 26 for the second. For reference, the 80s recording with Masur and this same orchestra on Philips took 47 and 30 minutes respectively—a standard timing. In whatever you way you look at it these two serenades are sprawling works, and even though the melodies are all very beautiful they sound terribly lengthy in previous recordings. The musicological point that booklet notes make (quoting Chailly) is simple: these two Serenades, stemming from Brahms’ early period (before he wrote his first symphony), are based on the young Brahms’ interpretation of the styles of Haydn and Mozart rather than inspired Beethoven, and should therefore be considered in terms of the Classical style. While this claim can be open for debate, the fact is that no matter in terms of purely musical understanding and interpretation of the score, or in terms of the historical and stylistic grounds of the interpretation, Chailly’s approach is undoubtedly innovative.

Musically, the effect Chailly achieves is outstanding: these performances’ spirit resemble that of Mozart’s serenades and divertimenti more than any other recording I’ve heard. The vitality of the rhythmic impulse and flexibility of pulse brings the more dance-like themes vividly to life. Let us take as an example the second subject of the first movement of the Second Serenade, a lilting woodwind melody atop pizzicato strings. In previous recordings such as Masur/Leipzig, Abbado/BPO and Haitink/RCO the theme can be called a relaxing stroll; under Chailly/Leipzig it becomes a light and jolly dance. This kind of interpretation washes the two Serenades off an air of heavy expressivity and imbues them with an idyllic lyricism, as well as brings more energy and rhythmic springiness to the rondo finales—qualities that the old style of interpretation cannot bring. Yet this observation seems oddly familiar—aren’t these virtues those of historically informed performances? Certainly they are. In fact, without the HIP movement, conductors of traditional orchestras such as Abbado, Haitink and Chailly would not have altered their previous styles in the first place—in these recent years these conductors have increasingly tried using a traditional modern orchestra to achieve the virtues brought about by historically informed performance in their interpretation of works by some composers (these three conductors’ latest Beethoven cycles prove the point).

Back to the Serenades: Abbado’s and Haitink’s recordings were made prior to their change towards the HIP style (I haven’t heard the recent LSO recording by the latter) and therefore are “old-world” interpretations. Mackerras, a pioneer of the half-HIP-half-modern style, has recorded the Serenades with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra on Telarc, a highly acclaimed version that nevertheless lacks the interpretative creativity and maturity of Chailly as well as the level of characterization, tone quality and technique of the woodwind and brass playing that the Leipzig players attain and the SCO players don’t. In truth, Chailly’s new aesthetic coupled with the Leipzig players’ malleable tone color makes for some highly mature and successful chemistry that is, in a word, irresistible.


  • Album name:  Brahms:  Serenades
  • Performers:  Riccardo Chailly (conductor);  Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
  • Label:  Decca 478 6775
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time: 65:19

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

One thought on “Chailly’s Brahms Serenades

  1. Pingback: Chailly’s Brahms Symphonies | Top Ear

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