Brahms Beloved

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COMPOSERS: Brahms,Clara Schumann
LABELS: Telarc
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms Beloved
WORKS: Brahms: Symphonies Nos 1 & 3 • Clara Schumann: 10 Lieder
PERFORMER: Felicity Lott (soprano), Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone); Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/John Axelrod (piano)

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This two-disc set, entitled Brahms Beloved, is presented as a ‘testament’ of the lifelong Brahms-Clara Schumann relationship. But although she was certainly his muse, and Jan Swafford’s note points out the allusions to Robert Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony in Brahms’s Third, there seems no obvious musical connection between Brahms’s Symphonies and Clara’s songs – except that both the conductor and piano accompanist here is John Axelrod.

His approach to the symphonies is very much on ‘traditional’ lines, unalloyed by more recent notions of ‘period’ performance. A full string complement is deployed; textures tend towards the homogeneous and massive; where not explicitly driven, tempos are often ponderous – especially in the First Symphony’s intermezzo-like third movement, and the slow waltz equivalent of the Third. The Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano delivers with discipline and heft but seem reluctant to play as quietly as the scores often require. These are solid, reliable enough readings, but with few fresh insights. Two bars of the woodwind restatement of the big tune in the First Symphony’s finale seem to have gone missing in the editing of the recording – did no one notice?

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Clara Schumann’s accomplished settings of Goethe, Rückert and Heine rarely sound Brahmsian, nor, for that matter, Schumannesque, but comprise a distinctive contribution to the German Lied. Neither Wolfgang Holzmair nor Felicity Lott retain quite the vocal bloom of yesteryear, and Holzmair occasionally over-interprets, but Dame Felicity’s artistry is as subtle and vivacious as ever. Axelrod delivers the spacious accompaniments with empathy and a lucid touch. Bayan Northcott