I love the Mirare label and decided to try this new Brahms release with an unknown orchestra and "director". Alas, I can dispense with it fairly quickly.
I've got to start with a gripe about the production. Why is the Second Serenade played first on this CD? It's completely illogical from every possible viewpoint. Even the booklet talks about the First first! Not only that, the back cover (as pictured on Amazon) incorrectly lists them in reverse order of how they are actually presented on the disc. (Mirare has corrected this, at least on copies in Europe. Mine came from Presto Classical and has a different back cover, with the program listing flip-flopped to match the actual CD. It also has a different picture of the conductor on the front.) Moreover, this performance of the Second is in no way enticing, so I'm completely baffled why Mirare would place it first on the CD.
But whatever. From the very first notes of the opening Allegro moderato (of the Second), it immediately establishes itself as being about as matter-of-fact and lacking in love of any Brahms I've ever heard. And this observation comes from someone who doesn't like lingering, drawn out, emotive Brahms to begin with! I loathe the excessive use of rubato in his music, preferring that it keeps moving forward with a natural flow. So perhaps I deserve what I get here - for there is virtually no emotion or rubato anywhere. This is downright cold and calculated, lacking warmth and feeling. Tempos are swift and rigid, directed as if by a metronome. I had hoped matters would improve in the Scherzo, but no - it's choppy and unduly rushed, with no lilt to it. Similarly, the Menuetto/Trio fourth movement is charmless, and the final Rondo is again rushed and pedestrian.
Further, this is obviously a small string section. And absent the violins in the orchestration, the smallness of sound is exacerbated.
Reluctantly I forged ahead with the First. This is Brahms at his happiest and most joyous, so perhaps this orchestra will at least smile. Well, there is a hint of warmth in the opening Allegro molto - but only just. And that didn't last long. Rigid tempos and playing which is impossibly earthbound, plodding and lacking spontaneity soon became unbearable. This orchestra dutifully plays all the notes without seeming to enjoy a moment of it. They aren't even encouraged to play with musical phrasing or singing lines. The central movements are unremarkable, the Scherzo is rather slow and prosaic, and the concluding Rondo is clipped and clunky, and devoid of charm.
I know I'm being extremely critical. But there are many good recordings released every month, all vying for the collector's attention, and this one literally shouldn't have been made. Even the recorded sound is rather mediocre - which is odd coming from this label. The orchestra is confined within a compact space, further exposing the smallness and lack of sumptuousness to its sound. There is sufficient warmth and reverberation to the soundstage, but the acoustic lacks air and spaciousness, and the orchestra sounds lackluster.
The characteristics I've observed above are not, in and of themselves, the problem here. It's not necessarily the rigid tempos, or the lack of rubato, or the matter-of-fact straightforward approach. All of those qualities could actually work if there was the slightest spark of inspiration motivating them. Or a genuine love of this music. But instead, it's just notes on the page.
Mirare has valiantly taken a chance on this community chamber orchestra and its leader (founder and principal cellist, Victor Julien-Laferriere) by producing their debut recording. And I admire them for that. But I have to wonder - did they hear them play these Brahms Serenades before committing to record them? This small group of musicians sound to be accomplished and more than capable of playing enjoyable concerts. But I can't imagine why they chose Brahms for their debut album. It just doesn't sound like their hearts were in it. I would have expected a debut recording to have an air of occasion to it.
In closing, I can genuinely say I don't enjoy writing a negative review. But I must be honest about what I hear. I purchased this CD, imported it from Europe, and was looking forward to hearing some nice Brahms. Something fresh or insightful. Or at least inspiring. Even though I would normally welcome Brahms played in a more straight-forward manner than usual, this one goes too far. And, frankly, I can't imagine anyone who loves Brahms enjoying it very much.
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