Wednesday 23 October 2013

Brahms Beloved - exploring the relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann

Brahms Beloved - John Axelrod: TEL-34658-02
This new disc from John Axelrod and  the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi on Telarc, tries to explore the relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Axelrod conducts the orchestra in Brahms's Symphony No. 2  in D major, Op.73 and Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op.98. These are paired with performances of songs by Clara Schumann sung by Nicole Cabell and Indra Thomas accompanied by Axelrod on piano. The results are intriguing but don't quite make for a satisfying programme, though having 10 of Clara Schumann's songs on disc is an attractive prospect.

The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann is one that has continued to tantalised commentators. Fourteen years her junior, Brahms was a great emotional support in the period when Schumann attempted suicide, and after Schumann's death. Quite how close their relationship was, we probably will never know as both destroyed letters. Various theories have been put forward, including one that Brahms was attracted the Schumann's daughter. John Axelrod believes that Brahms had a madonna-whore complex.

On this disc, Axelrod attempts to explore the relationship through music; the disc's subtitle is A Love Story in Symphony and Song. Unfortunately, Brahms symphonies make curious bed-partners with Clara Schumann's songs. Axelrod's performances of the symphonies with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi are attractive enough, but don't really illuminate Brahms possibly unfulfilled passion for Clara. And it has to be pointed out that a number of Clara songs were written and published well before she knew Brahms.

The disc starts with Brahms Symphony No. 4 in E minor recorded live. I have to confess that I did not find a lot of 'dark questing urgency' in Axelrod and the orchestra's performance. The opening Allegro non troppo was very much 'non troppo', with a rather steady-as-you-go feel it. The orchestral playing is mellifluous but the tempi a bit four square. The second movement Andante moderato is rather too sober with not enough ebb and flow. This is followed by a lively Allegro giocoso which, however, misses out on that edge of passionate intensity which it needs. The introduction to the final movements, Allegro engergico e passionato is notable, but the main part of the movement just didn't have the sweep that I wanted. Recorded live, this performance seems not to have quite caught fire despite some fine playing.

The first disc is completed with five songs by Clara Schumann, sung by soprano Indra Thomas. Here we move to a rather different world. Am Strande (based on Robert Burns Musing on the Roaring Ocean) is a lovely flowing piece, in Thomas's performance it sounds very balanced. Thomas has a lovely warm-sounding voice and here gives full weight to the words.

Ich stand in dunkeln Traumen (I stood in darkened day-dreams) is a lyrical piece, given a touching performance which is gently confiding. Der Abendsternen (The Evening Star) is one of the better known of Clara Schumann's songs,  with rather a notable tune. This melodic felicity is complemented by Thomas's nicely musical performance bringing out the songs intensity. Die stille Lotusblume (The quiet lotus blossom) has beauty and poise, with a lovely shape to the melody. Finally Er is gekommen in Sturm und Regen (He came in storm and rain) is perhaps the most intense song of the group, though Thomas does sound a little pushed at times. In all of them Axelrod contributes some notable piano accompaniment.

The second disc opens with Brahms's Symphony No. 2 in D marjor, Op.73 Here, we do find something of the youthful urgency that Axelrod refers to in the Cd notes. The opening Allegro non troppo is steadily flowing, with a nice impetus and a passionate edge. The second movement, Adagio non troppo, develops from a steady gravity to a more youthful urgency. The Allegretto grazioso is all light charm, whilst the finally Allegretto con spirito is nicely energetic, but without quite the urgency that I would have liked and there are hints of untidiness in the playing.

The symphony is followed by five Clara Schumann songs, sung this time by soprano Nicole Cabell, again accompanied by John Axelrod.

Liebst dum um Schoenheit (If you love for beauty) is given a poised and beautifully graceful performance by Cabell. She has a lighter sounding voice than Thomas, providing a nice contrast with a light texture to the performance. Liebeszauber (Love's magic) is a charming piece about a nightingale, which Cabell brings to a passionate climax. Der Mond kommt still gegangen (The moon so peaceful rises) is a lovely lyric description, sung sensitively by Cabell.  Auf eine grunen Hugel (On a green hill) is simple and austere, sung with beautiful clarity by Cabell. O Lust, O Lust (O Joy, O Joy) is full of joy and passion, a little delight.

The CD booklet includes an article about the music, but for the song texts you have to go to the CD's website and even here you are directed to other websites for the actual translations themselves.

The songs do seem to reflect what one imagines Clara's personality to be, there is a serenity and sense of balance, a calmness that comes over in this music.

Clara Schumann's music deserves to be better known and to come out of the shadow of that of her husband, but quite whether this is the disc to do it I don't know. Whilst I enjoyed the performances, I found the combination of symphony and song a little indigestible and could not help thinking that a disc of songs by Brahms, Robert Schumann and Clara Schumann might have made more sense.

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Symphony No. 4 in Eminor [ 42.17]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Am Strande [2.25]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Ich stand in dunkeln Traumen [2.27]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Der abendstern[2.42]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Die stille Lotusblume[3.25]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Er is gekommen in Sturm und Regen [2.40]
Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) - Symphony No. 2 in D minor [44.59]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Liebst du um Schonheit [2.37]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Liebeszauber [2.24]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Der Mond kommt still gegangen [2.11]
Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) - Auf einem grunen Hugel [3.10]

Indra Thomas (soprano)
Nicole Cabell (soprano)
Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano di Giuseppe Verdi
John Axelrod (conductor and piano)

Recorded live at the Auditorium di Milano, Italy, 15-18 June 2013 (Symphony No. 4),
live at the Auditorium di Milano, Italy, 12-17 March 2013 (Symphony No. 2)
Beethovensaal, Hannover, German, 1-5 May 2013 (Clara Schumann songs)
TELARC TEL-34658-02 2CD's

Brahms Beloved - Brahms symphonies nos 2 & 4, Clara Schumann songs; John Axeelrod, Nicole Cabell, Indra Thomas
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 23 2013
Rating: 3.0

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