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Johannes Brahms: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68 – Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Clara Schumann: Volkslied – Sie liebten sich beide – Warum willst du andre fragen – Mein Stern – Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage – Das Veilchen – Sie liebten sich beide – Lorelei – Ich hab’ in deinem Auge – Beim Abschied

Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, John Axelrod (piano/conductor)
Recorded at the Auditorium di Milano, Italy (October 25/27, 2013, December 13/15, 2013), Lieder recorded at the Beethovensaal, Hannover, Germany (October 6-10, 2013) – 113’47
Two Compact Discs with booklet, essays and translations in English

Upon first look, the listener finds no shortage of surprises in this recording, the first of which is the title. "Brahms Beloved," is a much more intriguing lead than is often found with the enclosed repertoire. Second, are the performers, the Milanese Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra, who perform core Germanic repertoire, supplemented by the revered Dame Felicity Lott and baritone Wolfgang Holzmair. Finally, the abundance and creativity of the program is intriguing. All of these elements combine for an enticing listen. The results are uniformly satisfying and often outstanding.

American conductor John Axelrod is the common creative thread through this recording, and if he's not a name you are immediately familiar with, his work here is enough to make one sit up and take notice. His navigation of the two Brahms symphonies is confident with an uncanny knack for finding an ideal balance between expression and symmetry of form. One doesn't have to search far for more passionately excessive interpretations of these symphonies. Chailly comes immediately to mind as a conductor who found provocatively new shapes to highlight in his recent recording.

But if it is evenness and clarity of form that inspire you in Brahms' symphonies, then Axelrod may be your man. Whether it's in the finale "chorale" of the first symphony or the "Andante" of the third, Axelrod leads with a steady hand that gives economical shape to Brahms' lyricism.

Yet, there is plenty of magic here. Axelrod allows his musicians, often the brass, to shine with rapturous shadings. Indeed, the range of color he invokes from LaVerdi is one of the supreme accomplishments of this recording. If one were to listen to this with no hint of where the orchestra was from, Italy would be near the last of the listener's guesses. I don't mean this disparagingly, but the control this orchestra exudes is often inspiring, and their expressivity abundant, but always subservient to the greater ensemble.

In fact, as outstanding as the First Symphony is here, the Third may surpass it. Axelrod is not afraid to dig in to Brahms' colorful romanticism and lets his players rhapsodize ever so slightly in the sonorities of the even more mature master's music. The aforementioned second movement gives way to a thoughtful final two movements that are as rich as one would want. It is as if Axelrod shows us Brahms aging (as well as pining for Clara) through the juxtaposition of two of his most magnificent compositions.

The Lieder of Clara Schumann are outstanding additions. In echoing the music of her husband, and even Brahms, Schumann created small musical gems. Holzmair is in fine voice. A lyric baritone with an easy upper extension, he is a consummate communicator. Lott is in outstanding voice with a gorgeous pianissimo that should be the envy of much younger artists. On the whole, these Lieder are a luxurious addition. To cap it all off, Axelrod serves as accompanist, sensitively and easily supporting the singers in their intimate performances.

Recorded during vibrant, live performances, “Brahms Beloved” is more than an outstanding bargain. It is a supremely thoughtful program, pristinely executed, and a loving homage to one of the most famous musical romances of all time.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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