John Axelrod

Brahms Beloved: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 4; Clara Schumann: Lieder

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The point of this Telarc release lies not in the performances, which make up in Italianate (or perhaps American) enthusiasm what they lack in German-Austrian precision. The live readings of Brahms' Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 73, and Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98, have a kind of involvement that is difficult to duplicate in studio settings, and conductor John Axelrod specifically set out to avoid the long Germanic performance tradition, employing the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi and setting the performances in an acoustically unspectacular auditorium in the orchestra's home city. The ten lieder of Clara Schumann are capably sung by sopranos Indra Thomas and Nicole Cabell, with conductor Axelrod at the piano, and additional recordings of this composer's still underexposed work are always welcome. But the main attraction is the program as a whole rather than any of its individual parts. The idea is that the ongoing relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann, consummated or not, continued to shape the music of both, and that the Schumann songs performed here match in mood aspects of the symphony that appears on the same album. Certainly the creative relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann was important to both, and it is not too much of a stretch to contend, as at least one of Brahms' old-fashioned, programmatically oriented biographers have done, that references to Clara appear in Brahms' music. But it is a long way from there to being convinced by the basic idea here. Axelrod does not try to claim that Brahms was reflected in Clara's songs, which were written long before the two symphonies involved. But even the concept of the Brahms symphonies here is suspect. The Symphony No. 4 is one of the most purely, defiantly abstract works in the classical repertory, and the fact that it may share key or motivic relationships with some songs from decades earlier is almost incidental. Recommended mostly for those who have to have a good story to go with their music.

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