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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816) [29:53]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Serenade No. 2 in A major, Op 16 (1858-59, rev. 1873) [29:52]
Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique/Sir John Eliot Gardiner
rec. live, 19 November, 2016, The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

At first sight, Schubert’s Fifth and the second of Brahms’ orchestral Serenades might not seem the most likely of bedfellows on CD or in a concert programme but, as it turns out, they make a delightful pairing.

In his interesting booklet essay, Stephen Johnson reminds us of the influence that Beethoven had on both of these composers, yet he rightly draws attention to the effect that hearing Mozart had on Schubert around the time of the composition of the Fifth. It’s a delightful work, my personal favourite among the first six of his symphonies. Here, the first movement bowls along airily. The performance may not be as relaxed and sunny as, say, Beecham made the music sound; nonetheless, there’s admirable precision, as you’d expect, from the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique and Gardiner leads an athletic performance. The string band is reasonably large, which is sensible since the performance took place in a large hall: twenty violinists are named (split 10/10, I suspect) and there are 8 violas, seven celli and five basses. However, at no time does the string section sound overweight. The playing is lithe throughout the symphony and agile in fast music.

Gardiner gives the Andante con moto just the right amount of space, I think, and the music is scrupulously phrased. The central section is, rightly, more serious in tone. Here Gardiner gives the impression that the pace is quicker but I don’t think that’s the case; the impression is due to the urgency he brings to that section of the movement. The Menuetto is taken very briskly and accents are used expertly to give impetus to the music. The trio is elegant; here I love the little hesitations at the start of many phrases. The finale scampers at first then switches to driving energy followed by geniality as Schubert effortlessly switches moods while the music rushes on. There’s no applause after this very enjoyable performance of the Fifth Symphony.

Sir John has already given us a fine and, in the best sense of the word, provocative cycle of the Brahms symphonies (review ~ review ~ review ~ review). The two Serenades were vital works along Brahms’ route to symphonic mastery so I’m delighted that Gardiner has now added the second of them to his discography, Brahms dispensed with violins in this score. Not only did that impart to the orchestral palette a darker hue than might otherwise have been the case but it also means that the nine woodwind instruments (double wind plus a piccolo) have a crucial and very prominent melodic role.

The first of the five movements, Allegro moderato, is relaxed at first but later the ambition of Brahms’ writing becomes evident. As I listened I wondered if Gardiner came to this score after the symphonies, thereby seeing the earlier work in retrospect, as it were. (That’s not an implied criticism, by the way.) The playing of the ORR’s woodwind section is wonderful in this movement. The very short Scherzo receives an extrovert, dynamic performance. The central Adagio non troppo takes the whole work onto a different, deeper level. Here, as Stephen Johnson says, Brahms shows he can “express and contain dark emotions.” The seriousness of the music is emphasised by the dark-hued scoring, especially the writing for celli, basses and horns. I greatly admired the way Gardiner and the ORR perform this movement. The following movement, Quasi menuetto, is not truly a minuet because Brahms writes in 6/4 time rather than the customary triple time This gives the music a somewhat unusual gait and the movement has an air of charming rusticity, albeit rusticity of a fairly sophisticated kind. The cheerful, buoyant finale has an open-air feel to it, which is just as it should be in a serenade. Here the horns make some exuberant contributions and the piccolo really makes its presence felt. For some reason I never quite warm to Brahms in his Hungarian gypsy mode but here there’s no trace of that and his up-beat music is a delight. There is applause after this performance but otherwise you would not know an audience was present for either work on the programme.

Don’t be deterred by the fairly short playing time. This disc offers a most enjoyable pairing of Schubert and Brahms. The playing is superb and Gardiner conducts really well. The sound is very good indeed. I do hope that in due course we will get a recording of the First Serenade from this source because both of Brahms’ delightful serenades deserve to be widely heard.

John Quinn



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