“Brahms Beloved” = BRAHMS: Symphonies, No. 2 in D, Op. 73; No. 4 in e, Op. 98; CLARA SCHUMANN: Am Strande; Ich stand in dunklen Träumen; Der Abendstern; Die stille Lotusblume; Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen; Liebst Du um Schönheit; Liebeszauber; Der Mond kommt still gegangen; Auf einem grünen Hügel; O Lust, O Lust – Indra Thomas, Nicole Cabell, sopranos/ Orch. Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/ John Axelrod, cond. & piano – Telarc TEL3465802 (2 CDs), 113:47 [Distr. by Concord Music] ***1/2:
This album sports an interesting concept, though I am not convinced of its validity. According to Axelrod, who came up with the whole idea, “If you listen to the Brahms symphonies, each of them seems to inhabit a completely different, though connected, character. Then, if you listen to the songs of Clara Schumann, they also fall clearly into a very similar four moods. I believe that Clara’s own personality is in those songs, and so if that is true, it is also possible to think of the four Brahms symphonies as portraits of Clara – four different aspects of her.” All of this is predicated on the idea that the relationship between Brahms and Clara is something far more than Platonic, an idea that is at the very least impossible to prove, especially since they both burnt their letters. That alone might be reason enough to suspect something, but those were different times and nothing conclusive can be drawn from that.
So I discarded this flimsy theory that Clara is in the symphonies and Brahms in the songs right from the start; what proved more interesting to me is the juxtaposition of the two musics showing how good a composer Clara really was, and how much many of her songs were influenced by Brahms, whose music she adored. It’s a fine idea to pair these two, and this, the first of two projected sets covering the Four Symphonies and a number of Clara’s songs, should be interesting when finished.
As to the performances themselves, that is slightly more problematic. First of all, I must say that the sound puts me into two minds; on the one hand, 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. In the songs everything is fine—Axelrod intends on using four different singers to represent Clara, and both Indra Thomas and Nicole Cabell prove themselves excellent arbiters of Clara Schumann’s muse. And the Second Symphony is really a fine reading, not greater than the best out there—Walter, Bernstein, Maazel, and many others—but fully competitive, and more exciting than most in the finale. The issue is with the Fourth, surely one of the most lethargic and turgid recordings ever to be released, at least in the first two movements. There is no drive, no sharpness of attack, a complete self-indulgent wallowing in Axelrod’s personal involvement with the work that leads it down a rough and uncertain road which gets stuck in the mud time and time again. By the time we get to the third movement we have lost interest, even though the piece does pick up from there. This alone makes it a non-starter as far as I am concerned, and half a Brahms Fourth is not going to please anyone, especially since great readings like Walter, Kleiber, and Stokowski (RCA) are available. What a shame.
Still, this is a good album, with mostly terrific readings, and can be recommended on that alone. I’ll hang onto it, in great hopes that volume two will continue down the paved road and not the rocky one. Axelrod has a lot to say in this music, mostly speaking with his own voice, and the waywardness is hopefully only a blip in an otherwise smooth path. And enjoyable outing for symphonies and songs.