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Brahms Beloved II / John Axelrod


Release Date: 07/22/2014 
Label:  Telarc   Catalog #: 34659   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Johannes BrahmsClara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity LottWolfgang HolzmairJohn Axelrod
Conductor:  John Axelrod
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Symphonies Nos. 1 and 3. C. SCHUMANN Volkslied, Sie liebten sich beide (Book 2, original version). Warum willst du and’re fragen. Mein Stern. Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage. Das Veilchen. Sie liebten sich beide. Lorelei. Ich hab’ in deinem Auge. Beim Abschied John Axelrod (pn, cond); Wolfgang Holzmair (bar); Felicity Lott (sop); Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi O TELARC 34659 (2 CDs: 118:41)

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This concludes John Axelrod’s labor of love, aptly titled Brahms Beloved , an exploration through the poetry of music and the music of poetry of the deep emotional connection between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.


As noted in my previous interview with Axelrod in 37: 3, Clara Schumann penned only 29 songs, most of which, if not all of them, she composed before that fateful day in October 1853, when Brahms arrived at the Schumanns’ doorstep in Düsseldorf. So, we have to grant Axelrod poetic license in associating Clara’s songs with Brahms’s symphonies. In fact, we know of only one instance in which Brahms encrypted a personal reference into one of his works, and it wasn’t a reference to Clara. The encryption—A-G-A-D-H (B)-E—occurs in bars 162-168 of the G-Major Second String Sextet, and is a reference to Agathe von Siebold, the woman to whom Brahms was engaged and almost married. Nevertheless, whatever the nature of the relationship was between Clara and Brahms, it was the single most enduring relationship of his life, and his feelings for her obviously found both an outlet and expression in many of his works.


None of the songs sung here is new to record—they’re all included on Hyperion’s album of Clara’s songs sung by Susan Gritton and Stephan Loges, and accompanied by Eugene Asti—but they’re sung here by two of the leading Lieder vocalists of our time, Wolfgang Holzmair and Felicity Lott, with keen insight into their meaning and with great beauty of tone. Nor should it be forgot that John Axelrod, in addition to his conducting skills, is a fine pianist who accompanies Holzmair and Lott with exceptional sensitivity to the differing timbres of their voices, as well as to Clara’s caringly crafted and carefully considered piano parts. She was, after all, first and foremost, a pianist to be reckoned with in her day.


Turning to the symphonies, Axelrod has already proven himself a master of Brahms with his previous release of the Second and Fourth symphonies. Here he puts on his conductor’s hat to lead Brahms’s most popular symphony, the No. 1, and arguably his most difficult, at least from the vantage point of the podium, the No. 3.


Axelrod’s way with the C-Minor First Symphony is authoritative and commanding. From the very first downbeat, one senses the shaping of a performance by a master builder. When Axelrod picks up his baton, he turns into a different Axelrod than the one analyzing Brahms’s psyche and romanticizing the composer’s inner emotional and psychological life. The conductor’s approach is one of architectural breadth and structural integrity. One hears it immediately in the exact 2:1 tempo relationship Axelrod achieves between the Un poco sostenuto introduction and the ensuing Allegro . One also hears it in the meticulous marking of the opposing rhythmic motives that drive the movement forward. Nor does the performance lack for sheer beauty of playing by the Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra—listen to the sinuous violin lines entwining in the second movement, and the sylvan woodwind exchanges in the third movement—or for dramatic impact—listen to the blazing brass in the grand finale, one of Brahms’s most triumphant codas. And further to his credit, Axelrod observes the often skipped first-movement exposition repeat.


The challenging Third Symphony is also masterfully led and played. If one measures a work’s popularity by its number of recordings, the F-Major Symphony is Brahms’s least popular, though we’re still talking over 200 versions currently listed.


The return of the score’s opening material in modified form at the end of the last movement suggests that Brahms may have been experimenting with cyclic form or perhaps a type of thematic transformation. It’s certainly a departure, though, from his previous two symphonies, which end in a blaze of glory, and from the symphony to come, which ends with the lemmings trampling each other in their eager, headlong rush to extinction. The quiet, reflective ending of the Third Symphony is something new and different for Brahms; few of his major works I can think of end this way. Indeed, there’s something enigmatic about this whole symphony. Except for a few passages in the first and last movements, there’s not a lot of drama; yet, the score’s lyricism is not of the pastoral nature encountered in the Second Symphony. Too, there seems to be a sort of material sameness to the tempos and textures, which don’t provide much opportunity for contrast; yet at the same time, there’s an underlying restiveness or discontent in this music that contradicts its Frei aber froh incipit.


What is the listener or, for that matter, the conductor to make of this puzzling work? I’ll admit that I’ve been listening to and loving Brahms for a very long time, but his Third Symphony is a score I still find it difficult to come to grips with. John Axelrod’s reading goes a long way towards helping me overcome my perplexity. I think his secret is to make every effort to clarify the music’s contrapuntal and rhythmic complexities, but without imposing additional tempo and dynamic adjustments beyond those that Brahms indicated, and without italicizing points of articulation to create extra stress or tension where the composer doesn’t call for it. Of Brahms’s four symphonies, the Third, I think, is the one least tolerant of meddling, and Axelrod doesn’t meddle. The result is a performance that allows the music to speak for itself, and with this fine Italian orchestra under Axelrod’s astute leadership, we get a clean, clear-eyed, unfussy Brahms Third that radiates a warm, inner glow.


Add to this Telarc’s magnificent recorded sound, produced by Michael Fine and Wolf-Dieter Karwatky, and you have a pair of Brahms symphonies for the ages. I can’t urge you too strongly to acquire this two-disc set, and its previous companion, if you didn’t already do so when it was enthusiastically reviewed, not just by me, but also by Dave Saemann and Lynn René Bayley.


FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

1.
Symphony no 3 in F major, Op. 90 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  John Axelrod
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1883; Austria 
2.
Symphony no 1 in C minor, Op. 68 by Johannes Brahms
Conductor:  John Axelrod
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Milan Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1855-1876; Austria 
3.
Volkslied by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1840; Germany 
4.
Mein Stern by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1846; Germany 
5.
Lorelei, Op. 53 no 2 by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1843; Germany 
6.
Lieder (6), Op. 13: no 5, Ich hab'in deinem Auge by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1842-1843; Germany 
7.
Lieder (6), Op. 13: no 2, Sie liebten sich Beide by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1842-1843; Germany 
8.
Lieder (3), Op. 12: no 3, Warum willst du andre fragen? by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1840; Germany 
9.
Die gute Nacht by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1841; Germany 
10.
Das Veilchen by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1853; Germany 
11.
Beim Abschied by Clara Wieck Schumann
Performer:  Felicity Lott (Soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (Baritone), John Axelrod (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1846; Germany 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Perfect Brahms August 19, 2014 By Joseph Lieber, MD (Great Neck, NY) See All My Reviews "Following up "Brahms Beloved 1", Axelrod and company create a stunning set of songs by Clara Schumann that are beautifully sung. These blend in beautifully with the Brahms symphonies number 1 and 3. Symphony number 1 takes a powerful and broad course, nicely molded and played. The 3rd, often the hardest to bring off, is in fact brought off with flow and beauty. I would love to hear Axelrod do the Brahms overtures and possibly serenades. If you love Brahms than these two sets are a must." Report Abuse
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