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Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Bruckner, Poulenc | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Bruckner, Poulenc

Classical CDs Weekly: Brahms, Bruckner, Poulenc

Romantic orchestral music and life-enhancing sounds from a master melodist

Jaime Martín: an exceptionally entertaining disc.Alexander Lindstrom


Brahms: Serenades 1 & 2 Gävle Symphony Orchestra/Jaime Martín (Ondine)

You know within seconds that this release is going to be good: droning string fifths introducing the catchiest of horn solos, the tune echoed in some style by a winningly perky clarinet. This is Premier League playing, and discovering that it's from an orchestra you've never heard of adds to the pleasure. Brahms's two Serenades are terrific pieces and don't get heard anything like as often as they deserve. Happily, both are on this disc, wonderfully performed by Sweden’s Gåvle Symphony Orchestra under Spanish flautist-turned-conductor Jaime Martín. They're early works, predating Brahms's official Symphony No 1, though the expansive, six-movement D major Serenade has a symphonic sweep. An 1883 performance in Vienna prompted a critic to describe it as “a charming idyll that makes one forget all the grumblings of everyday life”, but Martín’s reading doesn’t ignore the fleeting shadows. The fierce minor key statement of the first movement's theme before the recap is startling, making its official return more joyous. The Adagio non troppo charms, and the rambunctious faster movements twinkle – sample the fifth movement's unbuttoned horn calls. All wonderful.

As is the A major Serenade. Scored for smaller forces, Brahms's string section omits violins, the darker, more introspective sound offsetting the music's ebullience. The winds dominate, Brahms consciously looking back to Mozart's wind serenades. It's delectable music, the faster movements showcasing this composer at his most affable and unbuttoned. Irresistibly cheeky clarinets are a highlight in the last movement, along with prominent piccolo trills. An exceptionally entertaining disc.

Bruckner: Symphony No 2 Orchestre Métropolitain/Yannick Nézet-Séguin (Atma Classique)

You half hope that Bruckner’s early symphonies might turn out to last 30 minutes or so and sound like Schubert or Mendelssohn, but No 2, completed in 1872, is a typically uncompromising breezeblock of a piece, lasting 62 minutes in this performance. Though Yannick Nézet-Seguin’s humane, zingy reading makes a good case for the work. We can hear where Bruckner was heading. All the familiar tics and tropes are present: string tremolandi, gawky sequential passages and thunderous brass, though there’s a lot more light and shade here, with the brighter, more transparent sound made by the Montréal players an asset rather than a hindrance. Bruckner’s quirky melodies are phrased with palpable affection: the first movement's lyrical second theme is wonderfully done.

And what a good wind section this orchestra has: chorales are immaculately blended, with outstanding bassoons and clarinets. Horn solos in a very songful Adagio are immaculate, and the Scherzo’s Trio section is delightful. What even Nézet-Seguin can't do is make the Finale feel like more than a serious of disparate episodes stuck together; the blazing major key peroration seemingly arriving out of nowhere. But that’s the composer's problem, not the conductor’s. We’re used thinking of Bruckner interpreters as elder statesmen, and it’s reassuring to find a younger conductor who knows how to make this repertoire sing: this team’s recordings of Bruckner’s late symphonies are equally outstanding. Excellent recorded sound in this live performance, the audience impeccably behaved.

Poulenc: Mass in G, Litanies à la Vierge Noire The Sixteen/Harry Christophers (Coro)

As discs of Poulenc’s choral music go, this is about as good as it gets. It’s gratifying to see that this composer’s reputation doesn’t seem to have nosedived, and that a figure described by critic Virgil Thompson as the 20th century’s greatest melodist is as popular as ever. The brilliant tunes are only half the story; what’s key is where they’re placed, and that there’s never any trace of sentimentality. Drama, solemnity and sheer joy: all are present in spades. And if you’ve long considered Poulenc to be a vacuous fluff merchant, start with the Litanies à la Vierge Noire for women’s voices. Written quickly in 1936 as a response to the sudden death of a young colleague, its sombre organ writing hints at Poulenc’s developing spiritual crisis. The unaccompanied Mass in G is more characteristic, the Gloria’s quickfire exchanges immaculately handled by Harry Christopher’s The Sixteen, each scrunchy chord’s component parts deliciously audible. Soprano Julie Cooper is fearless in the closing Agnus Dei. Equally moving are the Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence and 1941’s brief Salve regina.

The sole secular work here is Un soir de neige; four brief settings of poetry by Paul Éluard, the music’s introspection reflecting the mood of life in occupied Paris. Light relief of sorts comes in the form of the post war Quatre motets pour le temps de Nöel and Ave verum corpus. The Sixteen combine fearless accuracy with affecting warmth; one can’t imagine this music being better performed. You'd want to rescue this CD from a burning building, and the recording quality is glorious.

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