(pn), cond; Indra Thomas (sop); Nicole Cabell (sop); O Sinfonica Di Milano Giuseppe Verdi ü TELARC 34658-02 (2 CDs: 113:47) Live: Milan
John Axelrod is a great Brahms conductor. His approach to the symphonies is completely distinctive, with a sound and sensibility all his own. Axelrod’s interpretations are predicated on a unique view of Brahms’s creative spirit. He feels that the composer was obsessed by his love for Clara Schumann. Analyzing Clara’s songs, Axelrod finds four different aspects to her personality. He then argues that Brahms’s symphonies can be viewed as four different but connected “portraits” of the various qualities in Clara Schumann. In “Brahms Beloved,” Axelrod
combines each symphony with songs by Clara that bear out the “portrait” Brahms has created of her. This represents an extremely interesting way to listen to this music, although under any circumstances combining Brahms’s symphonies with Clara’s songs taps into a mine rich in understanding for Brahms’s emotional life. Also, it is good to hear Clara Schumann’s songs anyway, as they are the work of a distinguished composer and a passionate woman. The songs on “Brahms Beloved” depict a woman far more interesting than the standard portrait of Robert
Schumann’s devoted wife. Are Brahms’s symphonies his “portraits” of Clara? As the two composers destroyed their letters, we never may know. One might ask, skeptically, if the symphonies portray Clara, why not the concertos or the piano trios? I am certain, however, that John Axelrod finds in the two symphonies recorded here some of the most sublime love music ever written, music of aching and poignant passion. Axelrod very well may convince you that Clara Schumann is the muse behind the Second and Fourth symphonies.
Axelrod begins “Brahms Beloved” with the Fourth Symphony in a performance of high passion and longing. The first movement opens with cascading melodies portraying a tumultuous love. Psychologically the music is deep and subtle in its expression. Axelrod doesn’t take the exposition repeat, in keeping with the onward rush of the emotional tumult. Highly expressive wind playing seems a self-portrait of the composer in his yearning. Axelrod takes his time in the bridge passages, building up tension. The movement ends with the composer’s emotion at a fever’s pitch. The next movement is a meditation on love, almost a nocturne. The solo playing is especially warm and lush. The second theme sounds drop dead gorgeous, perhaps a reverie on the lovers being together. Affectionate string playing makes the third theme intimate and tender. The return to the first theme is highly romantic, then building to a feeling of resolution and crisis. The first theme of the third movement is truly Giocoso, more a celebration than the pomp and circumstance of other performances. In the B section, there is a fleeting vision of the
beloved, the source of the composer’s joy. The last movement’s marking, Allegro energico e passionato, fits in perfectly with Axelrod’s concept of the score. Even in the quieter moments, there is intense yearning. The winds and brass play especially poignantly. As the movement proceeds, the composer appears as a driven man where his beloved is concerned. The symphony ends with the composer alone with a hopeless love.
While the Fourth Symphony ends with despair, Axelrod offers us a lovers’ idyll in the Second. The first movement begins like a story, almost “Once upon a time….” The exposition starts bucolically, as in Beethoven’s “Pastoral.” The second theme enters like a folk inspired love song. Brahms seems to depict a pair of lovers walking through the countryside. The exposition repeat appears to say that this is a story with much background. Even the marking, Allegro non troppo, indicates that the lovers will not be rushed. The development owes its inspiration to the first movement of the “Pastoral.” As Brahms’s movement ends, the lovers have said little, just soaking up each other’s presence. In the next movement, one can imagine the lovers lying by a brook, speaking tenderly. Rather than mimicking nature, the music suggests the sensations it gives to someone in love. In this regard, the wind solos are especially beautiful and evocative.
The movement ends like a conversation subsiding just into sighs. We get more folk inspired love music in the A section of the third movement, with a tender and woodsy sounding oboe. The excitement of a flock of birds taking flight informs the B section. At the return of the A section, the strings caress the notes. The last movement opens in jubilation, Con spirito. All the lovers’ previous emotions throughout the symphony seem to be recalled in the B section. As the symphony ends, the lovers become breathless with joy and passion. Brahms never may have
consummated his relationship with Clara physically, but with the Second Symphony, in Axelrod’s version, he consummates it musically.
Clara Schumann’s taste in poetry is very good, a trait which must have endeared her to her literary husband. Indra Thomas sings the first five of her songs with verve and commitment. Am Strande is a song of separation, with a passionate accompaniment. Ich stand in dunklen Träumen summons up a dream-like texture. Der Abendstern is a meditation. Clara creates an atmosphere of stillness in Die stille Lotosblume. In Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen, storm and rain in the music are converted deftly to Spring. Nicole Cabell sings the next five songs with lyric elegance and freshness. Liebst du um Schönheit is a declaration of the wonder of love for love’s sake—a sentiment that might have appealed to Brahms. Liebeszauber contains a familiar, but vivid evocation of the nightingale’s song. Der Mond kommt still gegangen is a nocturne. The most poignant of all the songs is Auf einem grünen Hügel, a meditation on the necessity of suffering to appreciate happiness. Appropriately, “Brahms Beloved” ends with O Lust, o Lust, a vivid demonstration of the joy of song. Throughout the songs, Axelrod’s accompaniments are warm and deft, a tribute perhaps to his early training in jazz piano.
The sound engineering throughout “Brahms Beloved” is excellent. The sound in the symphonies is particularly good for live recordings, warm, rich, and detailed. Other performances I like are by Sir Colin Davis and the Bavarian Radio Symphony in the Second, and by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in the Fourth. Pristine Audio also has the classic recordings of the two symphonies by Max Fiedler. John Axelrod’s Brahms is great and all his own. “Brahms Beloved” permits us to see deeply into the composer’s character. I don’t think anybody who loves Brahms can afford to be without it—it’s that good.