“Brahms Beloved” = BRAHMS: Sym. No. 1 in c, Op. 68; Sym. No. 3 in F, Op. 90; CLARA SCHUMANN: Ten Lieder – Felicity Lott, soprano/ Wolfgang Holzmair, bar./ Orch. Sinfonica di Milano Guiseppe Verdi/ John Axelrod, cond. & piano – Telarc TEL-34659 (2 CDs), 63:55, 54:17 [Distr. by Concord] ****:
BRAHMS: Sym. No. 3 in F, Op. 90; Sym. 4 in d, Op. 98 – London Sym. Orch./ Valery Gergiev – LSO Live multichannel SACD LSO0737, 77:15 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ***1/2:
What a difference two releases can make! When first reviewing Volume 1 of John Axelrod’s two-disc series of the Brahms symphonies that seeks to couple—with some curiously inept reasoning—Clara Schumann’s music into the mix, I said in that review “there is a lot of depth and rich bass in the symphonies that is most attractive. But there are also some sections that sound muddied where I detect a loss of detail, at least when compared to other recordings.” That still stands—which is no surprise considering the same venues and time periods. And then I really liked Symphony No. 2 but had reservations about No. 4. The same dichotomy holds true here. No. 1 starts with one of the most misjudged, totally self-indulgent beginnings I have ever heard, completely lacking in rhythmic impetus and featuring very little consistency or sense in the tempo choices throughout. After we exit this travesty things settle down; by the third movement we are reveling in positive serenity, and the fourth movement is actually quite exciting. I didn’t hold much hope for the Third, but I was really wrong. Axelrod hits on all six cylinders in this one that makes for one of the best readings in recent memory. Everything is right—tempo, phrasing, balance, and particularly Brahms’s often overlooked rhythmic underpinnings that so give the work that feeling of contented unrest.
In the previous review I mentioned that the one thing that Clara Schumann’s inclusion demonstrated was just how fine a composer she is, and that continues. The ten songs are divided up five and five between Felicity Lott and Wolfgang Holzmair and are generally well sung, though Dame Felicity is starting to show some wear. Luckily these songs are more about interpretative nuance than technical finesse, and all comes off well.
The Gergiev is quite standard—not at all the revelation I was hoping for in my last review when I said “No. 3 is the test, the hardest to pull off for any conductor… I will wait with baited breath to hear what Gergiev does with it.” Well, here it is, and I am a little disappointed with the lack of build that the conductor gives the opening chord. This motto, taken from friend Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, and further elaborated by Gustav Mahler in his “Tragic” Symphony, is a tricky little devil to pull off because of the delicate balance needed in the winds-only opening that too often is choked out before the massive entry of the strings and timpani. Gergiev plays it down and things just don’t seem to get on track from there. While the performance is most likely much better than it seems when compared with Axelrod’s miracle, the latter achieves the mystical while the former remains earthbound, in this Brahms’s most profoundly probing symphony.
With No. 4 things improve markedly—this seems to appeal to Gergiev’s more logical and methodical approach to music in general, something that makes his Wagner so successful—and the movement by movement “variation” schema that culminates in the massive last movement—and first written—plays very well. Carlos Kleiber and even Leopold Stokowski find more in terms of pure emotion, but Gergiev is not absent this—when passion and logical forms collide he inevitably rises to the occasion. Now that we have both sets together in his symphonic contribution, I think that overall it can be considered quite successful even though it doesn’t ascend to the very greatest recordings. As I mentioned previously, the LSO Live sound continues to improve, and while this issue is recorded at a rather low level and even lacks the bass presence of the Telarc, there is nothing to complain about.