Few composers lived life at a higher pitch of passionate, creative energy than Johannes Brahms. His music brims with dynamism, pulled from the exciting life he lived, characterized by the relationships he had. A devoted mentee of Robert Schumann's, Brahms nevertheless harbored a lifelong love for Schumann's pianist-composer wife, Clara Schumann. Brahms wrote to Clara, "I regret every word I write to you which does not speak of love."
In a fascinating new concept, John Axelrod (2012 ICMA Award winner and winner of the ResMusica "Best Classical CD of 2012") is to spearhead a multi-year exploration of the relationship between Brahms and the woman he loved, Clara Schumann, as depicted in their music. "If you listen to the Brahms symphonies," says Axelrod, "each of them seems to inhabit a completely different, though connected, character. Then, if you listen to the songs of Clara Schumann, they also fall clearly into a very similar four moods. I believe that Clara's own personality is in those songs, and so if that is true, it is also possible to think of the four Brahms symphonies as portraits of Clara - four different aspects of her."
In the symphonies, John Axelrod will conduct the Grammy Award-winning Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. For the first release, in September 2013, the second and fourth symphonies will be coupled with songs sung by, respectively, Nicole Cabell and Indra Thomas, with Axelrod accompanying from the piano. The second set of two symphonies and Lieder will be issued in 2014 with Wolfgang Holzmair and Dame Felicity Lott. The producer for the recording is multiple Grammy Award-winner Michael Fine, and fellow Grammy-winner Wolf Dieter Karwatky is engineer.
Clara was Johannes Brahms's muse, in many ways. Though Brahms never pursued his affection beyond words, he idolized Clara until the day he died. In 1855 he wrote to Clara "I can do nothing but think of you...What have you done to me? Can't you remove the spell you have cast over me?" That year he started composing his First Symphony in earnest.
It is hard, then, to separate the intensity of Brahms' work from the intensity of his love for Clara Schumann. Brahms Beloved explores the notion that perhaps Brahms depicts Clara through his symphonies - a programmatic aspect to a composer often thought of as a writer of absolute music. In this first volume of Brahms Beloved, the yearning, determined mood of his fourth symphony is coupled with songs of that same sensibility from Clara Schumann such as Am Strande and Ich stand in dunklen Träumen and Indra Thomas provides those vocal qualities for ‘her' side of Clara. Then Brahms's Symphony No. 2 - all fresh, charming emotion - is coupled with works such as Liebeszauber and O Lust, O Lust with leading young bel canto soprano Nicole Cabell.
"This is a major release for Telarc, and perhaps one of the most fascinating we've ever done," says Telarc's Vice President of Marketing Jason Linder, "John Axelrod has not only emerged as one of the finest conductors of today, he is also one of the music world's great innovators and both sides of him come together in this concept."
John Axelrod is Principal Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, as well as Music Director of the Orchestre National des Pays et des Loire (ONPL). A former pupil of Leonard Bernstein, he is one of today's most in-demand conductors. Recent recordings include a much-praised Berlioz and Ravel disc with Veronique Gens and the ONPL for Ondine Classics (which led respected US broadcaster Tom Manoff to write, "Just when I was beginning to worry about the future of classical music, I'm discovering new great conductors [like John Axelrod]"), "American Serenade" ("5 stars" - Diapason) with the ONPL and violinist Rachel Kolly d'Alba (Warner Classics), and Gorecki's Third Symphony with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra for Sony Classical. He regularly conducts other leading orchestras including the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Chicago Symphony and NHK Symphony and conducted the La Scala premiere of Bernstein's Candide. He recently conducted a world tour with superstar pianists Lang Lang and Herbie Hancock. He has been fascinated by challenging musical preconceptions since his early days in Houston when he founded the boundary-breaking "Orchestra X". His book, "How Great Music Is Made, Or Not" was recently published to critical acclaim in German by Schott-Henschel and will be published in English later this year.
Indra Thomas, a more dramatic-voiced soprano, opened the BBC Proms in 2006 and has sung with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera. She is especially noted as a leading Aida, a part she has sung around the world, from Chicago's Lyric Opera to the Bregenz Festival to London's Royal Albert Hall.
Nicole Cabell, the 2005 Winner of the BBC Singer of the World Competition in Cardiff and Decca recording artist, is fast becoming one of the most sought-after lyric sopranos of today. Her solo debut album, "Soprano" was named "Editor's Choice" by Gramophone and has received an incredible amount of critical acclaim and several prestigious awards: the 2007 Georg Solti Orphée d'Or from the French Académie du Disque Lyrique and an Echo Klassik Award in Germany
The Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi was founded in 1993 by Vladimir Delman, and subsequent music directors, conductors emeritus and principal guest conductors include Riccardo Chailly, Carlo Maria Giulini, Rudolf Barshai, Helmut Rilling and Wayne Marshall. Xian Zhang is the current Music Director, John Axelrod the Principal Conductor. The orchestra's recordings have won success and awards, including a Gramophone Award, Classic FM People's Choice, the Choc de l'Annee and, in 2010, the Grammy (for "Verismo Arias" with Renee Fleming).
The second and final volume of "Brahms Beloved", in which conductor John Axelrod pairs the Brahms symphonies (in this set, the First and the Third) with songs by his muse, Clara Schumann, will be released by Telarc. Volume 1 inspired healthy debate among Brahmsians as to how deeply enmeshed the presence of Clara is in the songs of the man who always had a love for her, and this volume takes the discussion further with a fascinating booklet essay by Jan Swafford, author of the standard-reference Brahms biography.
Keeping with the idea of using different voice-types for each ‘set' of Clara's songs, the better to explore the notion of different sides of their composer's character, this volume introduces our two final "Claras," the great Lieder singers Dame Felicity Lott and, for the more masculine side of Clara, Wolfgang Holzmair. The orchestra is again the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, of which John Axelrod is Principal Conductor, and Axelrod once more does double-duty as conductor and pianist.
In his forthcoming review of this album, music critic and Brahms specialist Jerry Dubins is as enthusiastic about this issue as he was about its predecessor. "Axelrod has already proven himself a master of Brahms with his previous release...Here, from the very first downbeat, one senses the shaping of a performance by a master builder. Nor does the performance lack for sheer beauty of playing by the Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra - listen to the sinuous violin lines...the sylvan woodwind exchanges...the blazing brass in the grand finale [of the First]...Add to this Michael Fine's and Wolf-Dieter Karwatky's magnificent recorded sound...and you have a pair of Brahms symphonies for the ages."