The second volume of John Axelrod’s ‘Brahms Beloved’ series again has Brahms’s orchestral monuments alongside Clara Schumann’s genteel songs that aren’t flattered by comparison, but suggest that she employed emotional templates that directly correspond with the symphonies. Brahms’s First Symphony is paired with Schumann’s more confessional songs that speak of recent emotional wounds, often with verse expressed in the first person. The Third Symphony sits alongside songs with the more detached serenity of resignation.
The demure emotionalism of the songs makes a good case for them when heard separately – with Felicity Lott and Wolfgang Holzmair, both past the age of 60, in good voice and putting their decades of interpretative mileage to the best possible use. Holzmair’s ability to convey great depths in miniature vocal gestures has never been more keen. Lott’s art is heard in particularly high relief in the haunting ‘Beim Abschied’, with her beautifully vocalised upward leaps and story-telling momentum keeping four long, musically similar strophes from seeming repetitive.
On the symphonic front, no one can pretend Axelrod’s orchestra has the kind of string section one expects in major Brahms recordings, though the orchestra’s Italianate lyricism supports his songful approach. Most notably, Axelrod’s genuinely deep rapport with the First Symphony is evident in any number of original interpretative touches that tap the conflicted longing under the surface.
…Considering the set’s two-for-one value, with singers in top form, it’s not a bad deal at all.