Brahms • C Schumann

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Brahms,C Schumann
LABELS: orchestral,review
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Beloved
WORKS: Works by Brahms, C Schumann
PERFORMER: Indra Thomas, Nicole Cabell, Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/John Axelrod
CATALOGUE NO: TEL-34658-02

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It’s an unusual, unprecedented, good idea to couple Brahms’s Symphonies with voice-piano Lieder by Clara Schumann. That would be interesting enough in itself, but according to James Inverne’s booklet notes, conductor and pianist John Axelrod has a much more detailed scheme of correspondences in mind. He sees all four Symphonies as directly inspired by Brahms’s love for Clara (itself the manifestation, and I’m afraid I’m not making this up, of his ‘undiagnosed but obvious Madonna/Whore complex’), and each Symphony as portraying a different aspect of her character. And he has arranged the songs into four groups (the current release is to be the first of two double albums) that he believes correspond to the different moods of each Symphony. Further, he has chosen a different soprano to sing each group, whose quality of voice enhances the intended unanimity of mood. So, there’s a ‘dark, questing’ group, sung by Indra Thomas, to go with the Fourth Symphony, and a ‘charm and youthful urgency’ group sung by Nicole Cabell, to go with the Second.

Clara’s Lieder, beautifully sung here, are excellent, and deserve to be far more widely known – but we are offered no texts, and not one detail about them. It would have been worth stating that some come from the Rückert settings jointly composed with Robert in 1841, and some from the Jucunde Lieder, practically contemporary with her first meeting with Brahms in 1853. Axelrod’s piano accompaniments are a model of interpretative sympathy.

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As for the Symphony performances, they are straightforward and enjoyable but, in a ferociously competitive field, not fantastically outstanding. Still, the basic idea of the coupling remains a canny one, and gives this set something offered by none of its rivals. Calum MacDonald