BRAHMS Symphonies No. 2 & 41. C SCHUMANN Am Strande2,3. Ich stand in dunklen Träumen2,3. Der Abendstern2,3. Die stille Lotusblume2,3. Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen2,3. Liebst Du um Schönheit2,4. Liebeszauber2,4. Der Mond kommt still gegangen2,4. Auf einem grünen Hügel2,4. O Lust, O Lust2,4 John Axelrod, 1cond, 2pn; 3Indra Thomas (s); 4Nicole Cabell (s); 1O S di Milano Giuseppe Verdi TELARC 34658-02 (2 CDs: 113:51)
This is a perfect example of how you can no longer judge a book, or a CD, by its cover. When I see a title like Brahms Beloved, which is the name of this 2-CD set, and a photo of the conductor with a rapt-pained-orgasmic (take your pick) look on his face, my first reaction—unless I already know the conductor’s work and like it—is to run for the hills. Yet as soon as the first CD, which starts off with the Brahms Fourth, started playing, I knew that I was faced with one of the great conductors of our age.
I happen to be very fussy about my Brahms conducting. I simply cannot tolerate conductors who play his music too slowly, which includes such luminous names as Karajan and Carlos Kleiber, or those who wallow in his “Romantic expressiveness.” Judging by Axelrod’s photo on the cover of this disc, I was certainly expecting that; but I was wrong. His Brahms Fourth—and Second—have the strength of character and integrity of tempo relationships found, in my experience, only in the very greatest Brahms conductors, which for me are Leopold Stokowski (from his early years of electrical recording), Felix Weingartner, Arturo Toscanini, Guido Cantelli (only the First, alas) and Charles Munch. In fact, as coincidence would have it, I was just involved in a bit of an argument with Toscanini fans over the least good of his performances, the 1935 BBC Symphony Fourth, which starts out in a painfully slow tempo, is riddled with awful string portamento, and at bar 19 has the syncopated wind figure come in a beat too early, which ruins the careful effect that Brahms created. Their argument, by the way, was that there was nothing wrong with that BBC performance; they wanted to know exactly at what bar it went wrong, Well, now you know. I don’t altogether blame Toscanini—he certainly knew the score cold—but the fact that he began at such a lugubrious tempo and then slowly began speeding up until he reached the one he liked probably threw the orchestra off.
Anyway, Axelrod, like early Stokowski, Weingartner and other Toscanini performances, does not make the same error; his syncopated figures are right on the money, and so too are his tempos and phrasing. Indeed, as I listened to his version of the Fourth, I kept hearing in my mind salient details of all the conductors I mentioned in the previous paragraph. It is almost as if Axelrod had listened to these very great artists perform this symphony, decided which points he liked from each of them, and synthesized them into his own interpretation. The liner notes say that he was a conducting student of Leonard Bernstein, but Bernstein’s often ragged-sounding orchestral textures and heavy-handed italicizing of phrases are a long way from the magnificent tonal luxuriance and sophisticated phrasing that Axelrod produces.
His orchestra has the appropriate warmth for Brahms, something that the Philharmonia Orchestra also had (in addition to Stokowski’s Philadelphia and Weingartner’s London Philharmonic and London Symphony) but the NBC forces did not always possess; so that, as a result, one hears in these performances a similar forward momentum without his overtly “pushing” the orchestra, absolutely gorgeous phrasing, and a surprising amount of detail for a Telarc recording. Telarc usually tends towards softer contours and more space around the orchestra, and indeed, the string tone here is not as clearly defined as I would ideally like, but it is clear enough. Axelrod’s attention to the score is particularly important in the last movement of the Fourth, where, as Robert Charles Marsh once said, maintaining a steady tempo is absolutely essential to making the music work and bringing out the different orchestral strands in such a way that it all makes sense, yet this is exactly one of the movements where many German conductors do not hold the tempo firm.
Incidentally, there are indications—but no absolute proof via recordings—that Brahms liked his symphonies played this way. His favorite conductor was, surprisingly enough, neither Hans Richter nor Weingartner but Fritz Steinbach, who unfortunately made no recordings. When Steinbach traveled to Milan to conduct a Brahms symphony, he was startled to discover that the orchestra was already well trained in that style and asked who their conductor was. The answer was Toscanini. Of course, the Toscanini of that time probably conducted much differently from the Toscanini of the early 1950s, when he performed the symphonies with the Philharmonia and recorded them with NBC, but it’s hard to imagine that any Toscanini-trained orchestra reached the heights (depths?) of sloppiness or drooping tempos exemplified by that poorly-executed BBC Symphony first movement of the Fourth. Moving on to the Second Symphony, Axelrod sounds here more like Munch or the NBC Symphony Toscanini; the Italian conductor’s Philharmonia performance, though unusually warm, relaxed and genial, was always, for me, a bit too smooth and relaxed, not detailed enough. Incidentally, one should also notice throughout these performances the extraordinarily rich, warm tone of the Milano Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra. If this, too, is an example of Axelrod’s work, he should also be credited as being one of the great orchestra builders of our time.
This was my first hearing of either singer in this set. Of the two, it seemed to me that Indra Thomas’s singing was more generic in mood, Nicole Cabell’s singing being more word-specific in the interpretation of text. Thomas’s voice also took a bit longer to warm up, about a minute into the first song she sang (Am Strande). Clara Schumann’s music, though good in a generic Schubert-like sort of way, is neither particularly adventurous in either melodic or harmonic construction to stand up to the music of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel. In short, it is good, but to my mind Clara’s influence on Brahms, and his affection for her, seems to me based more on her unflagging support and encouragement rather than on any of her music as such. Still, it is good to hear these seldom-recorded songs (according to Arkivmusic, only about five other versions of most of them, with complete recordings of all her songs by Isabel Lippitz, Susan Gritton and Dorothea Craxton), especially sung as well as this. I liked Axelrod’s piano accompaniments, but found them somewhat generic. These may not be the best examples of his playing, but he doesn’t do as much with the music at the keyboard as he does on the podium. (And, to be fair, this was one department that Bernstein excelled in. I didn’t always like his conducting, but I almost unfailingly admired him as one of the greatest song accompanists of all time, almost on a par with Benjamin Britten, Gerald Moore, or Geoffrey Parsons.)
In short, then, an absolutely outstanding release. When completed, I think it will be the best modern Brahms cycle available, and I certainly want to hear Part Two when it is released!