John Axelrod

John Axelrod
Orchestra Sinfonia di Milano Giuseppe Verdi

Do you love Brahms? After this symphonic cycle, I hope you will.

This is Brahms for everyone: An American conductor, an Italian Orchestra,and an international group of vocalists. There is much in common between cotoletta alls milanese and wienerschnitzel as Milan was technically under Austrian rule between 1706 and 1859, with a Napoleonic break for a few years. Thus, Brahms by an orchestra from Milan is not something unholy to classical ears, but now, with these recordings, Brahms can become truly global. Like Beethoven, who is universally received. This is also the theme of this Brahms cycle: To unbound Brahms and bring his music to the world. This is Brahms for the 21st Century. This is Brahms for All.

But to achieve this international embrace of Brahms, one must start with a love story.

"I love you more than myself and more than anybody and anything on earth."
   — J. Brahms to C. Schumann, 1874

The symphonies of Brahms synthesize all of his musical characteristics: formal structure, rhythmic innovation, soaring melodies and passionate romance, even if reserved in an understated way.

That reserved quality can also describe the unrequited love story between Brahms and his muse, Clara Schumann. Clara, herself a famous pianist, and wife of Brahms's mentor, Robert Schumann, was obliged to faithfully honor the man and champion the music of her husband, even until her own death. Yet, Brahms was always by her side, calling their relationship, "The most beautiful experience of my life, its greatest wealth, its noblest content." To Brahms, only her opinion mattered. Instead of flowers, Brahms sent the score of his 3rd Symphony to her as a present for her 64th birthday. "What a work! What a poem!" she declared, though she castigated him for mailing an original manuscript, fearing it could have been lost. When Clara died in 1896, Brahms died the year after. Though cancer was the cause, a life without Clara could be considered the greater reason. Without his muse, his life's work was done.

Just what was the nature of this unique relationship, an older woman, a younger man, two genius artists, both devoted to the memory of another? Is there something in the music of Brahms and in the lieder of Clara that might reveal the truth? Or, might it allow us to consider the possibilities, as a reflection of our own desire for romantic love? If love is the root of both altruism and passion, of fraternité and parental affection, of universal appeal and inner beauty, then Brahms's music is music for our time. Just as Beethoven's 9th Symphony preached the enlightened values of brotherly love, so, too, can Brahms' symphonies portray the one thing man needs most: Love. But love of a more intimate kind.

And by grouping each short set of Clara's songs with their 'corresponding' Brahms symphony, I have tried to show just that in this series, of which this is the second of two double-volumes. I not only have the honor to conduct the Grammy-winning Orchestra Sinfonica Di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, but to play the piano as well, accompanying four different voice-types as Brahms's four Claras. So the first symphony, both brain and brawn, with the triumphant pride of a masculine hero, has as its Clara the lieder specialist Wolfgang Holzmair. The second symphony, all charm, with the quick pulse of youthful urgency, has as its Clara the graceful bel canto singer Nicole Cabell. The third, with its intimate, spiritual maturity, is reflected by a very different Clara, with the graceful voice of Dame Felicity Lott. Then the fourth, with its dark, questing intensity, is reflected by a very different Clara, with the smoky, seductive voice of Indra Thomas.

Therefore, to love Brahms, as the title suggests in the romantic encounter depicted in the 1961 movie, "Aimez Vous Brahms?," it is the original way in which Brahms inherits the drama of Beethoven and points towards a romantic, psychological future that we can fully appreciate the significance of his music. His music reminds us all of our human quest for inner peace and our need to love and be loved.

But the love story is not fiction. It was real. And it is what you will be listening to.

John Axelrod on Brahms's Symphonies and Clara Schumann's Songs By Jerry Dubins 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.

The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann—was it romantic or platonic?—has been of enduring, and occasionally prurient, interest to music historians and music lovers alike for well over a century. Depending on the source you read, their relationship ranged from "a sizzling mess that left Brahms's life in chaos and filled his music with yearning (Jan Swafford's Johannes Brahms: A Biography); to "They had a torrid love affair; there's no way they couldn't have," according to celebrated pianist Ruth Laredo; to this excerpt from Out of the Shadows, an article posted at "Brahms and Clara loved each other deeply, but no one knows if their relationship was consummated. There is no evidence that it was. It might have been the age difference; Clara was 14 years older than Brahms; or that they both treasured the memory of Robert Schumann so much that their honor held them back. But Clara had at least one physically intimate relationship after Robert's death with one of his former pupils, closer to her age than Brahms, the composer Theodore Kirchner. It was a short and discreet affair. Yet Brahms was the most important man in her life for the next 40 years."

It's fun, even a bit titillating, to speculate about such things, but most sources I've come across on the subject lean towards the belief that Brahms's involvement with Clara and her family was of a different and more complex nature than is explained by simple carnal urges. What has always fascinated me—and I've said as much elsewhere in a previous review—is how and why a young man barely out of his teens, should give up so much of his youth and freedom to attach himself to a composer in a state of mental decline, his doting wife, and their seven children. When Robert died three years later, Brahms was only 23; he had his whole life ahead of him. Yet, so devoted was he to this family that he essentially became a self-appointed custodian to Clara and her children. It's as if, for some reason, Brahms chose to make himself a member of the Schumann household, even though his own mother and father were still alive and he had a brother, Friedrich, and a sister, Elise.

In the end, I think we have to take Clara at her own words in a letter explaining her relationship with Brahms to her children:
"He came as a true friend, to share with me all my sorrow; he strengthened my heart as it was about to break, he lifted my thoughts, lightened, when it was possible, my spirits. In short, he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word. I can truly say, my children, that I have never loved a friend as I loved him; it is the most beautiful mutual understanding of two souls. I do not love him for his youthfulness, nor probably for any reason of flattered vanity. It is rather his elasticity of spirit, his fine gifted nature, his noble heart that I love... Joachim, too, as you know, was a true friend to me, but... it was really Johannes who bore me up... Believe all that I, your mother, have told you, and do not heed those small and envious souls who make light of my love and friendship, trying to bring up for question our beautiful relationship, which they neither fully understand nor ever could."
The question in my mind has always been, "What happened to Brahms as a child that would lead him to forsake his own family for an adopted one? Was he unloved? Rejected by his mother? Psychologically damaged in some way so that as an adult he was unable to experience the intimacy of a conjugal relationship? These are questions to which we don't have answers, but Brahms's music speaks volumes about a man profoundly fatalistic and lonely. The longing or "yearning" (Swafford) that burns so intensely in the music he composed may not have been an expression of his pining for the physical Clara but for a spiritualized, idealized Clara and for a life and a world that might have been.

This lengthy preamble to my interview with John Axelrod is not without purpose, for John has embarked on a project to pair five of Clara Schumann's songs with each of Brahms's four symphonies in the belief that they share reciprocal moods and deep connections. This undertaking explores the notion that perhaps Brahms depicts Clara through his symphonies, "a programmatic aspect to the composer often thought of as a writer of absolute music."

Jerry: Two recordings, one on Naxos, the other on Hyperion, both claiming to include Clara's complete songs, contain exactly 29 numbers. So, in pairing five of her songs with each of Brahms's four symphonies, you will have accounted for over two-thirds of her entire song output. I couldn't help but wonder what you would have done had Brahms written six symphonies instead of four. You'd have run out of songs. So, I suppose the first, and maybe the most obvious, question I have for you is how did you choose which of Clara's songs to pair with which of Brahms's symphonies?

John: Few composers lived life at a higher pitch of passionate, creative intensity than Johannes Brahms. There's a reason that we tend to think of this composer in terms of his relationships—with family, with friends, with his great mentor Robert Schumann, and above all with Schumann's wife Clara, who Brahms soon told, "I regret every word I write to you which does not speak of love." But perhaps his music he need not regret, for I experience the symphonies as portraits of Clara. And her lieder are self-portraits of a woman's love. I don't mean to be too literal, but it allows for interesting speculation. Here are the songs and the Symphonies with which they are associated:
Brahms 1: majestic, arresting, fateful Clara songs:
Volkslied (Folksong)
Sie Liebten sich Beide (Book 2, original version)
Mein Stern (My Star)
Warum willst du and're fragen (Why do you ask others)
Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage (The Goodnight I Bid You)
The First Symphony begins with a C-Minor ostinato, creating tension with each note played in tenuto. The Volkslied, set to words by Heinrich Heine, from Clara Schumann's second book of lieder, has the same adagio character. How intriguing an idea that the symphony, which took Brahms 14 years to complete, might have been inspired at its genesis in 1854 by the 1840 song Clara composed. Had Brahms, already a member of the Schumann circle, heard these songs, and if so, might they have served as the seed of his first movement theme? The often used romantic idea of forbidden love and its inevitable ruin could be a deep emotion from which to draw emotional and musical inspiration. Love from afar, and instrumental passages of astounding beauty are common to both in the First Symphony and Volkslied. Given the romantic nature of Brahms's expression, and the animus, in the Jungian sense, heard in the lieder, I felt it was necessary to portray Brahms in the lieder via a baritone voice. Wolfgang Holzmair, the lieder specialist, is therefore an ideal partner.

Mein Stern, a poem by Serre, emphasizes that distant love as a star: "You are a herald of loving greetings; O let your beams give me thirsty kisses in yearning night." According to Psychology Today, men are more romantic than women. So, why should it be any surprise that Brahms makes his music a love letter, as when Brahms asks of Clara, heard in the piu andante section of the finale, when the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms may have heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, "High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!"?

Yet doubt remains a theme in their relationship. As written in Warum willst du and're fragen, when Rückert writes: "Will lips silence your questions, or turn them against me? Whatever my lips may say, see my eyes; I love you!" The warm melody of the clarinet in the third movement, like a shepherd's call, is so lovingly composed that it matches the hopelessly romantic quality of these words.

Die Gute Nacht presents then an idealized love, a spiritualized oneness of angelic bliss. And finally, the duet of the disc, Sie Liebten Sich Beide, in the original version of the Heine poem, sung as if by Brahms himself, a tragic prophecy of their unconsummated relationship: "They once loved each other, but none to the other confessed....." This melancholy is central to understanding Clara Schumann's lieder and their connection to Brahms's symphonies.
Brahms 2: expansive, triumphant, charming Clara songs:
Liebst du um Schönheit (If You Love for Beauty)
Der Mond kommt still gegangen (The Moon Comes Quietly)
Liebeszauber (Love's Magic)
Auf einem grünen Hügel (On a Green Hill)
O lust, O Lust (What Joy, What Joy)
"If you love for love, Oh yes, do love me! Love me ever, and I'll love you evermore!" What words they are to describe that innocent feeling, that almost adolescent awakening of romantic longing. That surrender to the optimism of love, only to be saddened by the reality of life. That summarizes the Symphony No. 2, a work filled with the radiance of D major harmony, like the sun drying drips of water away after a dip in the sea. The pastorale so often described in the score, and the maternal comfort of the lullaby theme of the first movement, and the oboe of the third offset the deep yearning and melancholy heard in movement two. The finale restores this sensation of manic energy, of excitement and anticipation, knowing that the time is passing quickly so that love shall be renewed.

I feel myself a little stammered by all these stimulating words, so you can imagine perhaps how Brahms might have felt composing it. After the nearly 15-year gestation of the First Symphony, the Second was composed in one summer in 1877. Most listeners respond to the pastoral, illuminating quality of the music, but Brahms himself wrote to his publisher on November 22, 1877, that the symphony "is so melancholic that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning." This melancholy is inherent in his psychological nature. Brahms, allegedly conditioned by a childhood of playing piano in Hamburg's bars, passed around among prostitutes, and harassed by sailors, is a case study for the Freudian "Madonna-Whore Complex." You ask the question: "Was Brahms psychologically damaged in some way so that as an adult he was unable to experience the intimacy of a conjugal relationship?" Thanks to biographies such as Jan Wafford's recent tome and the biography by Schauffler, we know that he frequented prostitutes throughout his life. We know his romances ended in failure, including his engagement to the singer Agathe von Siebold. Most likely, he experienced, in today's terminology, what could be called the arrested emotional development of an adolescent that caused him to conflate sex and love as one. Therefore, Clara remained, in Brahms's own words, "virginal," and the whores he knew on the streets of Vienna were dispensable. The Madonna made him holy. The whore made him evil. Light and darkness were inextricably linked to his emotional and musical life.

Those become the defining parameters in choosing the lieder. The lover who is near, and the one who dares not try. One extreme is the bright poems with correspondingly upbeat settings to music: Liebst du um Schonheit, with the words above, characterizes that innocent love, idealized and future seeking, full of hope and happiness. O Lust, o Lust is a fervent expression of female joy and desire. With words such as these: "O joy, o joy, from the mountain top, through all the land I'm singing." What does she sing? He Loves Me!

Two poems by Geibel continue this serene scene of love and lover. Liebeszauber, a fiendishly difficult setting of romantic harmonies always in ostinato that the concert pianist Clara would have easily played, is a potent spell of love's song, compared to that of the nightingale's, reinforcing the magical qualities of nature. Yet, the sound is ever more faint, only an echo. The love from afar is, in these songs, the only reality he knows. And Der Mond kommt still gegangen makes the moon the sender of love's nocturnal spell, only to understand our lover remains "in darkness..." and "looking out-silent-into the world." Suddenly our moon brings the shadow of melancholy. Auf einem grünen Hügel, by Rollett, continues the pastoral connection with nature. A green hill where a rose or a bird, instead of conjuring images of beauty, reveals tears and states: "Who never grieves or deepest sorrow suffers, will never happy be." Perhaps Brahms understood that despite the joy heard on the surface, sadness is all that remains, himself a voyeur who must watch his love, so close and yet so far.
Brahms 3: autumnal, introverted, mature Clara's voice; Clara songs:
Lorelei (Lorelei)
Sie liebten sich beide (They Loved One Another), (Book 1, revised vers.)
Das Veilchen (The Violet)
Ich hab' in deinem Augen (In Your Eyes I Beheld)
Beim Abschied (On Parting)
Heinrich Heine's famous poem, Die Lorelei, captures the dramatic intensity heard not only in the Third Symphony, and also in the song composed by Clara, but is consistent with the German romanticism theme of unattainable love. The poem, of the blonde maiden on the Rhine whose song hypnotizes sailors into crashing their boats, features an ostinato and harmonic progression reminiscent of Schubert's Der Erlkönig and Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, two pieces Clara would likely have known, though Silcher's 1837 rather light setting of the poem was more popular in Germany at the time. This Lorelei represents for me in connection with Brahms something connected in the famous, though unsubstantiated, motive of the opening chords of the Third Symphony, the "Frei Aber Froh" "Free But Happy," philosophy of a 50 year old bachelor, unwilling to be possessed by love, but yet hopelessly devoted. Completed six years after the Second Symphony, with the Third, Brahms's innocence is lost. We must believe Brahms found closure. The fact that he sent the draft of the Third Symphony to Clara as her birthday present, nevertheless risking, but perhaps desiring, her scolding him for not having sent an original draft, might be seen as his letting go of their unresolved love, of a mature acceptance of a platonic relationship. The ship may go down in the Lorelei, but Brahms stands firm as captain of his own domain. And Clara, as she wrote to her own daughter, that she and Brahms were merely "true friends," anticipated and protected the only future they would have as a couple.

Therefore, to hear again, this time in the voice of the anima, the revised version of Sie liebten sich beide, one hears, perhaps now, the resolved dialogue between these lovers. Is it coincidence that in 1853, the year Clara set Goethe's The Violet, one year before Robert's attempted suicide, that Brahms met his muse? The words are a romantic expression of a lonely but proud violet whose only desire is to be plucked by a beautiful maiden. Instead, she tramples on him. Yet, he is content: "I am dying now, but dying thus through her, through her, and at her feet I die." Indeed, Brahms himself, trampled by a life without fully having his love, died one year after Clara, probably from cancer, but more likely from being unwilling to live a life without her. Only in death could he finally have what he could not possess in life. For Brahms, it was all looking backwards at this point, the love they once lived. In the Rückert poem, Ich hab' in deinem Auge, the lover reflects on the eyes and cheeks of his beloved, only to say: "And though the flash of the eye may fade, and though the roses may wither, their splendor ever new refreshed, is how my heart will remember." In Beim Abschied, that memory is inspired by the thought that they will meet again, perhaps in Heaven, perhaps not, but, romantically, as the finale of Brahms's Third Symphony ends in pianissimo, we see them, hand in hand, at last, together.
Brahms 4: restless unease, yearning, dark determination Clara songs:
Am Strande (On the Bank)
Ich stand in dunkelen Träumen (In Dark Dreams I Stood)
Die stille Lotosblume (The Still Lotus Flower)
Der Abendstern (The Evening Star)
Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen (He came in Storm and Rain)
Closure is a good thing. But not when you live with regret. Let's return to the complexity of Brahms's psychological state of mind. If every time he broke off relationships or occupied himself with visits to the brothel, it is doubtful he would remain reconciled. Closure and acceptance require the full passage through all five cycles of loss, as documented by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal book, On Death and Dying. Denial, sadness, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. It seems Brahms never really got past the anger. The Fourth Symphony is therefore, in light of this analysis, an expression of this regret, fury, bitterness and anger. The opening motive of the first movement is an outpouring of breath and unresolved desire. The rising violas and cellos are the blood pulsating through his veins. The second movement, starting with the horn call, resembles a promenade past a colonnade, memories coming and going as he gets closer to the light at the end. The third movement giocoso is not to be misunderstood. Fast, yes, but with a sarcastic tone. Is this Brahms laughing at his own fate? The finale, written in passacaglia form, as if his thoughts of Clara replay in his head in various guises, with an elongated, bittersweet flute solo in the middle section representing her voice, is an exercise of impatient, restless fury. As if Brahms is announcing: I will not go gently into that good night! There is a story, as described by Norman Lebrecht in his book Why Mahler?, when Mahler went to visit Brahms at his summer home in 1896, that Mahler found him a lonely man, cooking his sausage for himself. It was a fate that frightened Mahler. Imagine the similarities and contrasts: Mahler discouraged Alma from composing, yet, despite her affairs, they remained married. Robert Schumann encouraged Clara's composing, yet, after his death and Brahms's declarations of love, she remained devoted to the memory of her husband (despite her short tryst with Kirchner). Was it really Brahms's psychology and misogyny that prevented the relationship from flourishing? Or was it the specter of Schumann that determined Clara's fidelity? Intriguing questions, particularly in the light of the Fourth Symphony. With the Third, Brahms thought he was in control. A man happy to be free, keeping his muse on her pedestal. With the Fourth, Brahms is the Oedipal boy, angry that fate turned out as it did. Fame or fortune cannot save a broken heart.

On the Shore, a poem by Robert Burns, translated as Am Strande into German by Wilhelm Gerhard, is a potent and dark expression of a broken heart. "Fear is my soul's master, alas, and hope shrinks away. Only in dreams do spirits bring tidings from my Beloved to me." Brahms and his beloved. A man left with fear and no hope. Only in his dreams can he see his Beloved.

Ich stand in dunkelen Traümen, another Heine poem, starts where Am Strande leaves off: "I stand in darkened daydreams...." We can associate this song with the ending of the second movement, with the clarinet fading away into the final chords. Brahms seems to say in music what the words ending this poem declare: "My teardrops welled up and flowed down mournful cheeks. Alas, I cannot believe it, that I am deprived of you!"

In Die Lotosblume, a lotus flower asks if his song can be heard by the swan. Does Brahms ask Clara the same? Despite Clara's support for the man and his music, the words that Brahms perhaps desired were, like those of the lotus, unheard. The second movement has a quality of inquisitive resignation, the fading timpani resembling to my ears a fading flower.

Der Abendstern is then Brahms's abdication. "Kill me then," he seems to say. "Are you really so far, then, loveliest glittering star? Secretly each hour I am yearning to travel to you....Doesn't your intimate light bid me to peacefully lie? Seeing you, glittering star-yes, I would so gladly die."

Sehnsucht is the German word for longing, yearning, nostalgia, desire all wrapped up together in nine letters. Tristan und Isolde, Paolo and Francesca, Romeo and Juliet. Adam and Eve. Perhaps we should add Johannes and Clara to the list.

Finally, for the last lieder, we hear the voice of Clara. Brahms is now the stranger who has come into her life. "He came in storm and rain, he boldly stole my heart. Did he steal mine? Did I steal his?" The sturm und drang of the music reflects this unsettled spirit. Like the finale of the symphony that remains relentless until the end, this song portrays Clara as relentless in her love: "He remains mine, on any road." Perhaps this was the road less travelled, for the relationship between these two was anything but ordinary. Better we appreciate what was extraordinary, in every letter, in every word, in every note. Brahms Beloved is a testament to this relationship in music. Jerry: Did you know that some of Clara's songs were mistaken for Robert's because it's believed that she signed his name to them after he became incapacitated as a way of earning the income she needed to support herself and her children? A song by Robert would get published faster, sell more copies, and bring more money. We now know that some of those songs once thought to be by Robert were actually composed by Clara.

John: That hardly surprises me. Clara was a woman for the 21st century. She composed, was a famous soloist, had seven children, preserved the legacy of Schumann's works, and nurtured Brahms. With all the discussion today about the role of women in society, Clara seems a fitting role model. We read much about Schumann encouraging her (as opposed to Mahler discouraging Alma), and her own self-criticism. It's interesting to speculate how Brahms might have received all of this. His idealized image of Clara, combined with his own complicated perception of himself, was the perfect garden in which a romantic love could grow. And it did through letters and gestures, and a life together until the end.

Jerry: What first gave you the idea for this project?

John: I had wanted to make a recorded cycle of Brahms's symphonies for some time, having started cycles in Lucerne and in France during my music directorships. I am sure most other conductors would agree that the symphonies of Brahms are among few enduring core central works that retain a holy place in a conductor's repertoire. My debut with the Milan Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra was the Brahms Piano Quartet, arranged by Schoenberg. Immediately, I was astonished and impressed by their sound and style—the depth, the density, the detail. Though we play most of the core repertoire, from Mahler to Strauss to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Schumann, it was my wish to record the Brahms cycle with the orchestra as their Principal Conductor. I must credit James Inverne, the former editor of Gramophone Magazine for sharing with me his idea of the symphonies and the lieder as bonus tracks, commenting on the Clara/Brahms relationship. Being a pianist, and a lover of voice, I immediately played the songs and realized a thematic and musical connection. Each poem inhabits different aspects of the character of Clara, as composer and lover. The symphonies reflect those aspects in emotion and sound. Once the idea was considered in depth, I enjoyed imagining Clara and Brahms and their alleged affair. It makes these historical figures come to life, to be more real to me. It exposes their humanity, just as the symphonies and songs reflect ours.

Jerry: More often than not, the singers we encounter performing the German lied repertoire tend to specialize in the field. Was it a little unusual to cast two heavyweight operatic sopranos in the role of singing Clara Schumann's songs? How did that come about?

John: When I met Indra Thomas in Paris, and she sang "Summertime" with Herbie Hancock and me jamming on the piano, I was reminded of Lillie May Williams, a Baptist minister in Texas who, fortunately for us, was also our nanny. She took my sister and I to the church, two little white kids, singing gospel and hallelujah in the service. She was the most tender, loving woman in the world, and had a voice, all velvety and sweet. Indra may be a big Verdi singer, and can project beyond the Arena di Verona, but the intimacy of her singing with me that night, convinced me that I wanted to work with her. That she also loved the Clara Schumann lieder was the icing on the cake. Nicole Cabell has been singing bel canto roles since her Cardiff Singer of the World win. It was a great honor for me to work with her. Her German, her intonation, her professionalism, all are ideal. Her voice matches the joy heard in the Second Symphony, a kind of innocent idealism. Wolfgang Holzmair is considered one of the great lieder specialists of our time. He has performed most of the lieder repertoire and recorded much of it, but when he agreed to make the recording together, he was instrumental in choosing the songs. It was vital, especially as we wanted a male voice to represent the masculine nature of Clara, that the harmony of each song be comfortable. Other than the whole step transposition of Mein Stern, but staying in a "flat" key, all other lieder remain in their original keys. This is an interesting point. All the lieder maintain thematically and harmonically an atmosphere of melancholy and darkness, of reflection, yet expressed emotion. The flat harmonies, F, Eflat, Dflat, C Minor, and Aflat —all these characterize the moods of the songs. It was essential that any transposition remain in these keys to capture the harmonic character. Finally, Dame Felicity Lott needs no introduction. Her career in opera and lieder has few comparisons. For the mature Clara, as expressed in the lieder associated with the Third Symphony, the mood is passionate yet resolved, from the drama of Die Lorelei to the acceptance of Beim Abschied. It was the desire to match the character of the songs, and to portray the character of Clara in four distinct voices that guided the choice of singers While there are many wonderful singers ideal for these lieder, that we chose these vocalists and were able to create the impression of four unique voices to reflect four different portraits of Clara to go with four different symphonies was a challenge well rewarded.

Jerry: Volume 1 of your Brahms-Schumann project begins with Brahms's Fourth Symphony. Was there a reason you began at the end, and then skipped back to the Second Symphony?

John: For me, and many others, the Fourth Symphony is the greatest of the symphonies, the summation of Brahms's genius in symphonic form. This is not to diminish the greatness of the others, for they are all masterpieces. But my feeling is a little like my attitude towards advanced education: I want to go back to university when I retire, to fully understand what I study with a lifetime of experience behind me. So that I can finally say, yes, now I understand what Nietzsche, Rousseau, Kant, and Sartre were writing. So, in a way, after having studied and performed all these symphonies many times, it is only now, that I can look back and realize where Brahms went with his work. By starting with the Fourth, I feel I have the totality of his musical ideas, with his full life of compositional experience behind him. It makes the First more compelling, but also reveals the difficulty he had in finding his singular voice. It makes the Second more a work of a younger man smitten by love. The Third might be the closure after accepting the loss of his love. By the Fourth, he was ready to vent his feelings, conscious about his emotions, but unconsciously competent, and perhaps even confident, in his composing. That fascinates me.

Jerry: Why Brahms to begin with? His music certainly isn't easy for the conductor or the orchestra, and there are so many recorded versions to choose from, ranging from two conductors who knew Brahms personally and who lived into the recording era—Max Fiedler and Felix Weingartner—to somewhat later podium greats of the 20th-century—Furtwängler and Toscanini—to just about every conductor of the last 60 years and right up to the present day. Do you find that just a bit daunting?

John: I think any conductor wanting to record core repertoire today would consider it a daunting task. Especially as the market has changed so much since the days of Bernstein and Karajan, not to mention the others you mention. However, this repertoire is organic; it lives by the breath of the musicians who play it, and must never exist only in a vacuum or as a recorded museum piece. Brahms, like Beethoen, Mozart, Mahler, and any other great composer, is universal and timeless. Perhaps those conductors who knew Brahms understood the style of the music as performed under the conditions and limitations of the time, but music is not limited to time. It exists for all time and depending on the evolution of the instrument of the orchestra, so too can an interpretation change. Think about how Brahms loved working with the Meiningen Ensemble when he wrote: "Von Bulow must know that the smallest rehearsal in the smallest Meiningen hall is more important to me than any Paris or London concert, and good and comfortable I feel amidst the orchestra, I could sing aloud a long song of praise about it." So can I. I feel good with my orchestra, and the way they play shows they not only understand the tradition and Germanic style of playing Brahms, but they offer something innovative, something fresh, that bit of sunshine that even Brahms himself preferred on his trips to Italy.

Jerry: Tell me about your appointment to and work with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. It's not an ensemble we've heard much from on record, but based on my hearing of it in your recording of two of Brahms's symphonies it's a quite brilliant band of players.

John: Well, they actually have recorded quite a great deal, most notably the 2010 Versimo CD with Renée Fleming that won the Grammy for best vocal performance. Of course, many a great orchestra could do that with Renée. But la Verdi offers something few orchestras have, their own auditorium. Most orchestras must rent their halls. Their sound may be connected to the hall, like the Berlin Philharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, etc, laVerdi has crafted its sound in its own hall, but and that hall, like the orchestra, is for the people of Milan, by the people and of the people. Their outreach is outstanding. Their commitment to the community is incalculable. Perhaps, being an Italian orchestra, it's not recognized as much for symphonic output, as one expects opera from an Italian orchestra, but considering Chailly's directorship of the orchestra and the many great conductors who have worked with la Verdi, it's understandable why they have in their short history one of the most concentrated repertoires for any orchestra. As I noted previously, when I played Brahms with them upon my debut, I was deeply impressed, despite their young age, by their musical maturity. The same could be said of any symphony we played. Part of this is that they were created to provide a professional opportunity for the many wonderful musicians in this cultural capital so dominated by LaScala. They operate as a family, with none of the internal animosities often found in orchestras. If family is the dominant quality of Italian culture, it is then not surprising to see that quality in the orchestra. As you know, I wrote a book about the anthropology of the orchestra, first released in German with the title Wie Großartige Musik Ensteht...Oder Auch Nicht, which is now released as an ebook on naxosbooks, called The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis. While many cultures have their advantages, there is a reason why Italian orchestras continue to nurture conductors. Think about it. As I wrote in my book: "Most Italian orchestras defy the stereotype of Italian chaos, as they are actually much more organized and professional than many would give them credit for, at least if one follows the idea that an orchestra reflects the politics of its culture. Italy has not had the most stable of governments since its unification but, after a Mussolini here and a Berlusconi there, it still remains the place where one can find the best conductors in the world, and some of the best orchestras. The list is long: Toscanini, de Sabata, Giulini, Abbado, Muti, Noseda, Luisi, Sinopoli, Gavazzeni, Gatti, Chailly, Pappano… And therefore, the quality of the orchestras is consistently good. Somehow the conductor tradition, while being defined by the Kleibers and Karajans of history, remains firmly established in bella Italia. Another likely influence is the fact that Italy is a lyrical culture and all the conductors from Italy have their roots in the theaters of Naples, Genoa, Rome, Turin, Venice and, of course, Milan. The respect is great for the ancient traditions. It is the only country in the world where the orchestra still stands up for the entrance of the maestro at the first rehearsal. Maybe that's why conductors like going there." And that is why I like going there. They are a great orchestra. And they make me a better conductor.

Jerry: So what future plans do you have with the orchestra?

John: With laVerdi, anything is possible. We have recently toured Germany and of course made these recordings. We will continue my Mahler symphony cycle in Italy with the "Resurrection," and continue our Strauss tone poem cycle and our Beethoven cycle with an ideal program of Ein Heldenleben and the "Eroica." Ideally, I would like to continue recording. And naturally to tour the USA. But ideas are nothing without action, so I hope our recordings inspire your readers to buy the CD so that we can soon act upon that support and make more recordings and more tours. Most of all, we will continue to deepen our relationship with the Milan community for that is where we are strongest. Without a public, an orchestra cannot exist. And without an orchestra, a conductor has no instrument. So it is clear the role of the orchestra is not only vital to both conductor and community but to the very culture of a country. That is something I respect very much in the laVerdi philosophy.

Jerry: Well, I won't bid you farewell, because I understand that this interview is to be continued in the next issue of Fanfare to coincide with the release of Volume 2 in your Brahms-Schumann project. So, until then, keep up the good work and stay well.

John: And if I may, let me leave you with one more phrase from one of the lieder, Beim Abschied, that might give us hope for what lies ahead:
"Noch ein Gruße, auf Wiedersehn,
S'ist Kein Abschied, kein Vergehn."
"Yet a wish to meet again,
T'is no parting, no farewell."

BRAHMS Symphony No. 4 in e. Symphony No. 2 in D. C. SCHUMANN Songs: Am Strande(1); Ich stand in dunklen Träumen(2); Der Abendstern(3); Die stille Lotosblume(4); Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen(5); Liebst du um Schönheit(6); Liebesazuber(7); Der Mond kommt still gegangen(8); Auf einem grünen Hügel(9); O Lust, O Lust(10) ~ John Axelrod, (pn), cond; Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi O; (1-5)Indra Thomas (sop); (6-10)Nicole Cabell (sop) ~ TELARC 34658 (2 CDs: 113:47)

This initial installment in John 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 (Asharp) in the fifth bar, pointing the harmony towards B Minor, and its unexpected twist in the seventh bar. What is this unusual chord: Dsharp-Fnatural-A-B? One analysis would call it a French sixth, a chord built on the raised fourth degree of a scale; except that here it would be the "wrong" French sixth, the one we'd expect to find in the key of A, resolving normally to the dominant of that key, E, which it actually does, except that here E is the tonic, not the dominant. An alternative analysis would argue that the chord is not a French sixth at all, but, correctly, the dominant seventh in the key of E, except that it has been chromatically altered to have a lowered fifth (B-Dsharp-Fnatural-A). Such an altered dominant seventh is not unprecedented, and is fairly common, actually, in jazz. In this case, the progression would be the customarily expected dominant-to-tonic (V–I) cadence, but a modified one. Whichever analysis one prefers, the salient point is that the Fnatural, which is the lowered second degree in the key of E, refers back to the symphony's second-movement Phrygian modality, the medieval mode of mourning. Brahms plays on the ambiguity between E Minor, A Minor, and B Minor to create much of the feeling of tension, 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. Kalliwoda's Fifth Symphony (1840) is an interesting exception for not only ending in minor, but for being one of only a select few 19th-century symphonies between Schubert's "Unfinished" and Tchaikovsky's "Pathétique" to be in the key of B Minor. Kalliwoda's finale, however, can hardly be called tragic or doom-laden; it's more of a polka cast as a rondo.

The yearning of those falling thirds and rising sixths at the outset of Brahms's Fourth 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 note 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, let alone 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 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 aching 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 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 is, 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 his 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, has 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'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.

Telarc's dedication to excellence in recorded sound is fully in evidence. 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


© 2010-2013 John Axelrod. All rights reserved.