John Axelrod

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29 Aug 2013
Brahms Beloved
Fanfare Magazine

BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 in e. Symphony No. 2 in D. C. SCHUMANN Songs: Am Strande1; Ich stand in dunklen Träumen2; Der Abendstern3; Die stille Lotosblume4; Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen5; Liebst du um Schönheit6; Liebesazuber7; Der Mond kommt still gegangen8; Auf einem grünen Hügel9; O Lust, O Lust10 John Axelrod, (pn), cond; Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi O; 1-5Indra Thomas (sop); 6-10Nicole Cabell (sop) TELARC 34658 (2 CDs: 113:47)


If the name John Axelrod is unfamiliar to you, stay tuned, for he is rapidly becoming one of today’s leading and most sought-after conductors. After successful tenures as Music Director and Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Theater, and as Music Director of the l’Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire (ONPL), Axelrod was appointed Principal Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in 2011; and it is with that ensemble, plus two outstanding sopranos, that he has embarked on a project to pair each of Brahms’s symphonies with five of Clara Schumann’s songs.

The undertaking, aptly titled, “Brahms Beloved,” explores the notion that Brahms depicts Clara through his symphonies, “a programmatic aspect to the composer often thought of as a writer of absolute music,” and that specific songs by Clara exhibit reciprocity of moods and share deep connections with Brahms’s symphonies.

This initial installment in Axelrod’s project is a two-disc set, which gives us the last of Brahms’s four symphonies, the No. 4 in E Minor, on disc one, followed by the first five of Clara’s songs listed in the above headnote, and Brahms’s Symphony No. 2 in D Major, followed by another five of Clara’s songs on disc two.

Let me take the discs in order. As I’ve observed in prior reviews, success or failure in performing Brahms’s Fourth Symphony hinges on the last movement. It’s not that the symphony’s first three movements can be written off, but no matter how well-executed and beautifully done they may be, if the finale fails to grip the listener in its ever tightening vise, the efforts lavished on the preceding movements remain unfulfilled. No symphonic score by Brahms is as micro-organized down to the interval level as is this E-Minor Symphony and it all leads inexorably to a coda ending in an apocalyptic catastrophe.

Much is made of the finale’s form—alternately identified by different sources as either a passacaglia or a chaconne—a massive movement based on the chaconne theme from the last movement of Bach’s cantata, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich, BWV 150. It’s a strange harmonic progression that Brahms sets forth in his eight-bar theme, with its raised fourth degree (A) in the fifth bar, and in the seventh bar, a French sixth chord (D-F-A-B), but the “wrong” French sixth (the one belonging to the key of A Minor), resolving normally to an E-Major chord, which would be its regular resolution to the dominant of the key, except that here E is the tonic. This ambiguity and tension between E Minor, A Minor, and B Minor are what account for much of the feeling of anxiety and dread of dire consequences the listener experiences in this movement. Though Brahms’s Fourth is not the first symphony ever to end in a minor key—Mozart’s 40th is surely a significant precedent—minor endings in 19th-century symphonies are very rare, practically non-existent, actually, until Brahms’s Fourth; and none that I know of ends with such a sense of doom-laden finality before Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” eight years later in 1893.

The yearning of those falling thirds and rising sixths at the outset of the symphony can be felt palpably with the very opening strains of Axelrod’s performance. The orchestra breathes and sighs to the rise and fall of his baton. This is quite simply one of the most all-embracing, humane first movements I’ve heard, Axelrod’s sensitivity and compassion extending even unto those passages of crueler affect. The Phrygian-tinged, funereal second movement is played with equal empathy, and in Axelrod’s hands the menacing aspects of the scherzo, while not completely suppressed, are downplayed in favor of Brahms’s giocoso marking. But it’s in the crucial finale that Axelrod’s mettle is put to the test, and I can report that he passes with more than flying colors. His reading of the movement is fraught with apprehension of the approaching calamity, as it should be, and the flute’s plaintive mid-movement pleading, beautifully played by the orchestra’s principal flutist, is all the more tragic for its pitiless rejection at the resumption of the passacaglia’s onslaught. All in all, a perfect Fourth magnificently led and played by John Axelrod and his Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra.

The album tells us that the five songs by Clara Schumann chosen to complement Brahms’s Fourth Symphony are of a sensibility that reflects the yearning, determined mood of the Symphony, an observation with which it’s hard to disagree. But here’s where chronology intervenes with a bit of a reality check. Here are the songs included on disc one, along with their dates of composition: Am Strande (1840), Ich stand in dunklen Träumen (1844), Der Abendstern (1834), Die stille Lotosblume (1842), and Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen (1841). As you can see, not only do all of these songs predate Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (1885) by anywhere from 41 to 50 years, but when Clara wrote them, in the earliest case, Der Abendstern, Brahms was still in diapers, and in the latest case, Ich stand in dunklen Träumen, he was a boy of 11. He wouldn’t meet the Schumanns for another nine years, so Clara had no knowledge of Brahms’s existence or of his yet-to-be music.

So, we must consider any similarities between these songs and Brahms’s symphonies as either purely happenstance or we must look at the likenesses between them from the other direction. In addition to her being a composer and brilliant pianist, Clara could sing; and it’s almost a certainty that Brahms accompanied her at the piano as the two of them read through her songs together. Brahms was surely familiar with Clara’s songs—indeed all of her music—well before he came to write his symphonies. It’s entirely plausible, then, perhaps even likely, that Clara’s songs evoked moods and modes of expression for Brahms that found their way into his symphonies. Even if we dismiss the idea as a fanciful notion, it can’t be denied that the songs selected as discmates for the two symphonies in this set bear a remarkable kinship in terms of their gestural language.

Soprano Indra Thomas made her debut at Carnegie Hall in Verdi’s Requiem, and has since sung at the Met, the Vienna State Opera, and other noted venues. Considered one of the foremost Aïdas in the world today, Thomas has won critical acclaim for her performances in the operas of Verdi—besides Aïda, Il Trovatore, Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Carlo, and La Forza del Destino—as well as Mozart, Bellini, Wagner, and Puccini.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect an operatic soprano who has undertaken such big and heavy roles to adapt both voice and technique to the intimate poetics of Clara Schumann’s songs, but whatever she has done to modulate her approach, Thomas succeeds admirably. She expresses such meltingly sad tenderness, for example, in Der Abendstern (The Evening Star), where she sings the words Schau ich dich, blinkenden Stern, möcht' ich ja sterben so gern (“Seeing you, glittering star, yes, I would so gladly die”) that one immediately grasps the longing in words that Brahms expresses so poignantly in much of his music without words—truly of an exquisite beauty.

Brahms’s Second Symphony, which occupies disc two along with another five of Clara’s songs, has sometimes been referred to, and not entirely without justification, as the composer’s “pastoral” symphony. To be sure, it doesn’t present the listener with the trauma and tragedy of the Fourth Symphony, but while the Second’s psychological makeup may be less complex, its emotions are subtle and sensitive, and they run deep.

If it’s the Fourth Symphony’s finale that makes or breaks a performance, for me, at least, it’s the Second Symphony’s second movement, the Adagio that seals a performance’s fate. If I had to pick one out of a multitude of passages in which Brahms expresses his longing for love and his love of longing, it’s the opening bars of this movement—those arching phrases in the cellos, reaching ever upward and falling back, only to rise again. If the conductor gets the tempo just right, the rest takes care of itself—too slow and the sense of vaulting and spanning is lost; too fast and the sense of ache and yearning evaporates. Axelrod is among the blessed who gets it right. But that’s not all he gets right. Judiciously, he observes the first movement exposition repeat, which means we don’t lose those extra first-ending measures Brahms took care to write. Again, as with his reading of the Fourth Symphony, everything about Axelrod’s Second strikes me as perfectly judged and perfectly realized by his outstanding Italian orchestra.

In light of the very different complexion of the Second Symphony, I couldn’t help but wonder what songs by Clara Schumann would fit the symphony’s profile. As with the first group of songs on disc one, all were composed well before Brahms wrote any of his symphonies, and three out of the five—Liebst du um Schönheit (1841), Liebesazuber (1842), and Der Mond kommt still gegangen (1842)—were written years before Brahms and Clara became an item. Only two of the songs—Auf einem grünen Hügel (1853) and O Lust, O Lust (1853)—are dated the same year that Brahms met Robert and Clara for the first time in Düsseldorf.

Once again, Axelrod has chosen the complementary songs most wisely. Take, for example, the song Liebesazuber to a poem by Emanuel von Geibel (1815–1884). It’s almost freakish how its lines:

“Now love once like a nightingale

in rosebush perched and sang;

with sweetest wonder flew the sound

along the woodland green”

mirrors the lines from Die Mainacht by Ludwig Heinrich Christoph Hötly (1748–1776), one of four poems Brahms set to music between 1857 and 1866, and published as op. 43:

When the silvery moon beams through the shrubs

And over the lawn scatters its slumbering light,

And the nightingale sings,

I walk sadly through the woods.”

Clara’s innocent, seemingly lighthearted musical response to the words of Geibel’s poem are, admittedly, quite different from Brahms’s brooding, self-pitying setting of Hötly poem, but we’re not dealing here with Brahms’s songs, it’s his symphonies that are under discussion; and it can’t be denied that the easygoing, bucolic, serenade-like nature of the Allegretto grazioso movement from Brahms’s Second Symphony is kindred in spirit and a fitting analog to Clara’s song.

The five songs on disc two are sung by soprano Nicole Cabell, who trained at the Eastman School of Music and the Ryan Opera Center before winning the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. She too, like Thomas, appeared with many of the world’s leading opera companies, including the Met, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the San Francisco Opera. Cabell has also had symphonic engagements with the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the Cleveland and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras, and Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Cabell has also recorded solo and ensemble albums for Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Delos, Opera Rara, and Blue Griffin.

It’s impossible to prefer Cabell over Thomas or vice-versa in Clara Schumann’s songs. Both singers have gorgeous voices, and both are deeply sensitive and sympathetic interpreters of these perfect vocal miniatures. I should also mention that John Axelrod is as gifted at the keyboard accompanying Cabell and Thomas as he is on the podium leading a major symphony orchestra.

I could be wrong about this, but I believe this is the first new classical music recording to appear on Telarc in some time. The label, once esteemed for its state-of-the-art recordings, has devoted its most recent efforts mainly to jazz and various forms of contemporary pop music. It’s good, therefore, to see the company throwing its support behind this project and producing this major new release. Nothing has changed in terms of Telarc’s dedication to excellence in recorded sound. I can’t urge you too strongly to acquire this release, as we await Axelrod’s second installment in this venture, Brahms’s First and Third Symphonies, plus 10 more of Clara Schumann’s songs.

Jerry Dubins

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