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CLARA THE SUPERWOMAN

November 16, 2019

BY JOHN AXELROD WITH JERRY DUBINS

John Axelrod on Brahms’s Symphonies and Clara Schumann’s Songs

BY JERRY DUBINS

If the name John Axelrod is unfamiliar to you, stay tuned, for he is rapidly becoming one of today’s leading and most sought-after conductors. After successful tenures as music director and chief conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra and Theater, and as music director of the l’Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire (ONPL), Axelrod was appointed principal conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi in 2011; and it is with that ensemble, plus two outstanding sopranos, that he has embarked on a project to pair each of Brahms’s symphonies with five of Clara Schumann’s songs.

The undertaking, aptly titled Brahms Beloved, explores the notion that Brahms depicts Clara through his symphonies, “a programmatic aspect to the composer often thought of as a writer of absolute music,” and that specific songs by Clara exhibit reciprocity of moods and share deep connections with Brahms’s symphonies.

The relationship between Brahms and Clara Schumann—was it romantic or platonic?—has been of enduring, and occasionally prurient, interest to music historians and music lovers alike for well over a century. Depending on the source you read, their relationship ranged from “a sizzling mess that left Brahms’s life in chaos and filled his music with yearning” (Jan Swafford’s Johannes Brahms: A Biography); to “They had a torrid love affair; there’s no way they couldn’t have,” according to celebrated pianist Ruth Laredo; to this excerpt from Out of the Shadows, an article posted at music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/9607_schumann/cschumann3.htm: “Brahms and Clara loved each other deeply, but no one knows if their relationship was consummated. There is no evidence that it was. It might have been the age difference; Clara was 14 years older than Brahms; or that they both treasured the memory of Robert Schumann so much that their honor held them back. But Clara had at least one physically intimate relationship after Robert’s death with one of his former pupils, closer to her age than Brahms, the composer Theodore Kirchner. It was a short and discreet affair. Yet Brahms was the most important man in her life for the next 40 years.”

It’s fun, even a bit titillating, to speculate about such things, but most sources I’ve come across on the subject lean towards the belief that Brahms’s involvement with Clara and her family was of a different and more complex nature than is explained by simple carnal urges. What has always fascinated me is how and why a young man barely out of his teens, should give up so much of his youth and freedom to attach himself to a composer in a state of mental decline, his doting wife, and their seven children. When Robert died three years later, Brahms was only 23; he had his whole life ahead of him. Yet, so devoted was he to this family that he essentially became a self-appointed custodian to Clara and her children. It’s as if, for some reason, Brahms chose to make himself a member of the Schumann household, even though his own mother and father were still alive and he had a brother, Friedrich, and a sister, Elise.

In the end, I think we have to take Clara at her own words in a letter explaining her relationship with Brahms to her children: “He came as a true friend, to share with me all my sorrow; he strengthened my heart as it was about to break, he lifted my thoughts, lightened, when it was possible, my spirits. In short, he was my friend in the fullest sense of the word. I can truly say, my children, that I have never loved a friend as I loved him; it is the most beautiful mutual understanding of two souls. I do not love him for his youthfulness, nor probably for any reason of flattered vanity. It is rather his elasticity of spirit, his fine gifted nature, his noble heart that I love....Joachim, too, as you know, was a true friend to me, but ... it was really Johannes who bore me up....Believe all that I, your mother, have told you, and do not heed those small and envious souls who make light of my love and friendship, trying to bring up for question our beautiful relationship, which they neither fully understand nor ever could.”

The question in my mind has always been, “What happened to Brahms as a child that would lead him to forsake his own family for an adopted one? Was he unloved? Rejected by his mother? Psychologically damaged in some way so that as an adult he was unable to experience the intimacy of a conjugal relationship? These are questions to which we don’t have answers, but Brahms’s music speaks volumes about a man profoundly fatalistic and lonely. The longing or “yearning” (Swafford) that burns so intensely in the music he composed may not have been an expression of his pining for the physical Clara but for a spiritualized, idealized Clara and for a life and a world that might have been.

This lengthy preamble to my interview with John Axelrod is not without purpose, for John has embarked on a project to pair five of Clara Schumann’s songs with each of Brahms’s four symphonies in the belief that they share reciprocal moods and deep connections.

Jerry: Two recordings, one on Naxos, the other on Hyperion, both claiming to include Clara’s complete songs, contain exactly 29 numbers. So, in pairing five of her songs with each of Brahms’s four symphonies, you will have accounted for over two-thirds of her entire song output. I couldn’t help but wonder what you would have done had Brahms written six symphonies instead of four. You’d have run out of songs. So, I suppose the first, and maybe the most obvious, question I have for you is how did you choose which of Clara’s songs to pair with which of Brahms’s symphonies?

John: Few composers lived life at a higher pitch of passionate, creative intensity than Johannes Brahms. There’s a reason that we tend to think of this composer in terms of his relationships—with family, with friends, with his great mentor Robert Schumann, and above all with Schumann’s wife Clara, who Brahms soon told, “I regret every word I write to you which does not speak of love.” But perhaps his music he need not regret, for I experience the symphonies as portraits of Clara. And her Lieder are self-portraits of a woman’s love. I don’t mean to be too literal, but it allows for interesting speculation. Here are the songs and the symphonies with which they are associated:


FANFARE: Brahms 1: majestic, arresting, fateful

Clara songs:

Volkslied (Folksong)

Sie liebten sich beide (They Loved One Another) (Book 2, original vers.)

Mein Stern (My Star)

Warum willst du and’re fragen (Why Do You Ask Others)

Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage (The Goodnight I Bid You)

The First Symphony begins with a C-Minor ostinato, creating tension with each note played in tenuto. The Volkslied, set to words by Heinrich Heine, from Clara Schumann’s Second Book of Lieder, has the same adagio character. How intriguing an idea that the Symphony, which took Brahms 14 years to complete, might have been inspired at its genesis in 1854 by the 1840 song Clara composed. Had Brahms, already a member of the Schumann circle, heard these songs, and if so, might they have served as the seed of his first movement theme? The often-used romantic idea of forbidden love and its inevitable ruin could be a deep emotion from which to draw emotional and musical inspiration. Love from afar, and instrumental passages of astounding beauty are common to both in the First Symphony and Volkslied. Given the romantic nature of Brahms’s expression, and the animus, in the Jungian sense, heard in the Lieder, I felt it was necessary to portray Brahms in the Lieder via a baritone voice. Wolfgang Holzmair, the Lieder specialist, is therefore an ideal partner.

Mein Stern, a poem by Serre, emphasizes that distant love as a star: “You are a herald of loving greetings; O let your beams give me thirsty kisses in yearning night.” According to Psychology Today, men are more romantic than women. So, why should it be any surprise that Brahms makes his music a love letter, as when Brahms asks of Clara, heard in the piu andante section of the Finale, when the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms may have heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, “High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!”?

Yet doubt remains a theme in their relationship. As written in Warum willst du and’re fragen, when Rückert writes: “Will lips silence your questions, or turn them against me? Whatever my lips may say, see my eyes; I love you!” The warm melody of the clarinet in the third movement, like a shepherd’s call, is so lovingly composed that it matches the hopelessly romantic quality of these words.

Die Gute Nacht presents then an idealized love, a spiritualized oneness of angelic bliss. And finally, the duet of the disc, Sie Liebten Sich Beide, in the original version of the Heine poem, sung as if by Brahms himself, a tragic prophecy of their unconsummated relationship: “They once loved each other, but none to the other confessed....” This melancholy is central to understanding Clara Schumann’s Lieder and their connection to Brahms’s symphonies.

Brahms 2: expansive, triumphant, charming

Clara songs:

Liebst du um Schönheit (If You Love for Beauty)

Der Mond kommt still gegangen (The Moon Comes Quietly)

Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic)

Auf einem grünen Hügel (On a Green Hill)

O Lust, O Lust (What Joy, What Joy)

“If you love for love, Oh yes, do love me! Love me ever, and I’ll love you evermore!”

What words they are to describe that innocent feeling, that almost adolescent awakening of romantic longing, that surrender to the optimism of love, only to be saddened by the reality of life. That summarizes the Symphony No. 2, a work filled with the radiance of D-Major harmony, like the sun drying drips of water away after a dip in the sea. The pastorale so often described in the score, and the maternal comfort of the lullaby theme of the first movement, and the oboe of the third, offset the deep yearning and melancholy heard in movement two. The Finale restores this sensation of manic energy, of excitement and anticipation, knowing that the time is passing quickly so that love shall be renewed.

I feel myself a little stammered by all these stimulating words, so you can imagine perhaps how Brahms might have felt composing it. After the nearly 15-year gestation of the First Symphony, the Second was composed in one summer in 1877. Most listeners respond to the pastoral, illuminating quality of the music, but Brahms himself wrote to his publisher on November 22, 1877, that the Symphony “is so melancholic that you will not be able to bear it. I have never written anything so sad, and the score must come out in mourning.” This melancholy is inherent in his psychological nature. Brahms, allegedly conditioned by a childhood of playing piano in Hamburg’s bars, passed around among prostitutes, and harassed by sailors, is a case study for the Freudian “Madonna-Whore Complex.” You ask the question: “Was Brahms psychologically damaged in some way so that as an adult he was unable to experience the intimacy of a conjugal relationship?” Thanks to biographies such as Jan Wafford’s recent tome and the biography by Schauffler, we know that he frequented prostitutes throughout his life. We know his romances ended in failure, including his engagement to the singer Agathe von Siebold. Most likely, he experienced, in today’s terminology, what could be called the arrested emotional development of an adolescent that caused him to conflate sex and love as one. Therefore, Clara remained, in Brahms’s own words, “virginal,” and the whores he knew on the streets of Vienna were dispensable. The Madonna made him holy. The whore made him evil. Light and darkness were inextricably linked to his emotional and musical life.

Those become the defining parameters in choosing the Lieder. The lover who is near, and the one who dares not try. One extreme is the bright poems with correspondingly upbeat settings to music: Liebst du um Schonheit, with the words above, characterizes that innocent love, idealized and future seeking, full of hope and happiness. O Lust, o Lust is a fervent expression of female joy and desire. With words such as these: “O joy, o joy, from the mountain top, through all the land I’m singing.” What does she sing? He Loves Me!

Two poems by Geibel continue this serene scene of love and lover. Liebeszauber, a fiendishly difficult setting of romantic harmonies always in ostinato that the concert pianist Clara would have easily played, is a potent spell of love’s song, compared to that of the nightingale’s, reinforcing the magical qualities of nature. Yet, the sound is ever more faint, only an echo. The love from afar is, in these songs, the only reality he knows. And Der Mond kommt still gegangen makes the moon the sender of love’s nocturnal spell, only to understand our lover remains “in darkness ...” and “looking out-silent-into the world.” Suddenly our moon brings the shadow of melancholy. Auf einem grünen Hügel, by Rollett, continues the pastoral connection with nature. A green hill where a rose or a bird, instead of conjuring images of beauty, reveals tears and states: “Who never grieves or deepest sorrow suffers, will never happy be.” Perhaps Brahms understood that despite the joy heard on the surface, sadness is all that remains, himself a voyeur who must watch his love, so close and yet so far.

Brahms 3: autumnal, introverted, mature

Clara songs:

Lorelei (Lorelei)

Sie liebten sich beide (They Loved One Another) (Book 1, revised vers.)

Das Veilchen (The Violet)

Ich hab’ in deinem Auge (In Your Eyes I Beheld)

Beim Abschied (On Parting)

Heinrich Heine’s famous poem Die Lorelei captures the dramatic intensity heard not only in the Third Symphony, and also in the song composed by Clara, but is consistent with the German Romanticism theme of unattainable love. The poem, of the blonde maiden on the Rhine whose song hypnotizes sailors into crashing their boats, features an ostinato and harmonic progression reminiscent of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig and Beethoven’s “Appassionata” Sonata, two pieces Clara would likely have known, though Silcher’s 1837 rather light setting of the poem was more popular in Germany at the time. This Lorelei represents for me in connection with Brahms something connected in the famous, though unsubstantiated, motive of the opening chords of the Third Symphony, the “Frei Aber Froh” (Free But Happy), philosophy of a 50-year-old bachelor, unwilling to be possessed by love, but yet hopelessly devoted. Completed six years after the Second Symphony, with the Third, Brahms’s innocence is lost. We must believe Brahms found closure. The fact that he sent the draft of the Third Symphony to Clara as her birthday present, nevertheless risking, but perhaps desiring, her scolding him for not having sent an original draft, might be seen as his letting go of their unresolved love, of a mature acceptance of a platonic relationship. The ship may go down in the Lorelei, but Brahms stands firm as captain of his own domain. And Clara, as she wrote to her own daughter, that she and Brahms were merely “true friends,” anticipated and protected the only future they would have as a couple.

Therefore, to hear again, this time in the voice of the anima, the revised version of Sie liebten sich beide, one hears, perhaps now, the resolved dialogue between these lovers. Is it coincidence that in 1853, the year Clara set Goethe’s The Violet, one year before Robert’s attempted suicide, that Brahms met his muse? The words are a romantic expression of a lonely but proud violet whose only desire is to be plucked by a beautiful maiden. Instead, she tramples on him. Yet, he is content: “I am dying now, but dying thus through her, through her, and at her feet I die.” Indeed, Brahms himself, trampled by a life without fully having his love, died one year after Clara, probably from cancer, but more likely from being unwilling to live a life without her. Only in death could he finally have what he could not possess in life. For Brahms, it was all looking backwards at this point, the love they once lived. In the Rückert poem Ich hab’ in deinem Auge, the lover reflects on the eyes and cheeks of his beloved, only to say: “And though the flash of the eye may fade, and though the roses may wither, their splendor ever new refreshed, is how my heart will remember.” In Beim Abschied, that memory is inspired by the thought that they will meet again, perhaps in Heaven, perhaps not, but, romantically, as the Finale of Brahms’s Third Symphony ends in pianissimo, we see them, hand in hand, at last, together.

Brahms 4: restless unease, yearning, dark determination

Clara songs:

Am Strande (On the Bank)

Ich stand in dunkelen Träumen (In Dark Dreams I Stood)

Die stille Lotosblume (The Still Lotus Flower)

Der Abendstern (The Evening Star)

Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen (He Came in Storm and Rain)

Closure is a good thing—but not when you live with regret. Let’s return to the complexity of Brahms’s psychological state of mind. If every time he broke off relationships he occupied himself with visits to the brothel, it is doubtful he would remain reconciled. Closure and acceptance require the full passage through all five cycles of loss, as documented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her seminal book, On Death and Dying: denial, sadness, bargaining, anger, and acceptance. It seems Brahms never really got past the anger. The Fourth Symphony is therefore, in light of this analysis, an expression of this regret, fury, bitterness and anger. The opening motive of the first movement is an outpouring of breath and unresolved desire. The rising violas and cellos are the blood pulsating through his veins. The second movement, starting with the horn call, resembles a promenade past a colonnade, memories coming and going as he gets closer to the light at the end. The third movement giocoso is not to be misunderstood. Fast, yes, but with a sarcastic tone. Is this Brahms laughing at his own fate? The Finale, written in passacaglia form, as if his thoughts of Clara replay in his head in various guises, with an elongated, bittersweet flute solo in the middle section representing her voice, is an exercise of impatient, restless fury. As if Brahms is announcing: I will not go gently into that good night! There is a story, as described by Norman Lebrecht in his book Why Mahler?, when Mahler went to visit Brahms at his summer home in 1896, that Mahler found him a lonely man, cooking his sausage for himself. It was a fate that frightened Mahler. Imagine the similarities and contrasts: Mahler discouraged Alma from composing, yet, despite her affairs, they remained married. Robert Schumann encouraged Clara’s composing, yet, after his death and Brahms’s declarations of love, she remained devoted to the memory of her husband (despite her short tryst with Kirchner). Was it really Brahms’s psychology and misogyny that prevented the relationship from flourishing? Or was it the specter of Schumann that determined Clara’s fidelity? Intriguing questions, particularly in the light of the Fourth Symphony. With the Third, Brahms thought he was in control. A man happy to be free, keeping his muse on her pedestal. With the Fourth, Brahms is the Oedipal boy, angry that fate turned out as it did. Fame or fortune cannot save a broken heart.

On the Shore, a poem by Robert Burns, translated as Am Strande into German by Wilhelm Gerhard, is a potent and dark expression of a broken heart. “Fear is my soul’s master, alas, and hope shrinks away. Only in dreams do spirits bring tidings from my Beloved to me.” Brahms and his beloved. A man left with fear and no hope. Only in his dreams can he see his Beloved.

Ich stand in dunkelen Traümen, another Heine poem, starts where Am Strande leaves off: “I stand in darkened daydreams....” We can associate this song with the ending of the second movement, with the clarinet fading away into the final chords. Brahms seems to say in music what the words ending this poem declare: “My teardrops welled up and flowed down mournful cheeks. Alas, I cannot believe it, that I am deprived of you!”

In Die Lotosblume, a lotus flower asks if his song can be heard by the swan. Does Brahms ask Clara the same? Despite Clara’s support for the man and his music, the words that Brahms perhaps desired were, like those of the lotus, unheard. The second movement has a quality of inquisitive resignation, the fading timpani resembling to my ears a fading flower.

Der Abendstern is then Brahms’s abdication. “Kill me then,” he seems to say. “Are you really so far, then, loveliest glittering star? Secretly each hour I am yearning to travel to you....Doesn’t your intimate light bid me to peacefully lie? Seeing you, glittering star-yes, I would so gladly die.”

Sehnsucht is the German word for longing, yearning, nostalgia, desire all wrapped up together in nine letters. Tristan und Isolde, Paolo and Francesca, Romeo and Juliet. Adam and Eve. Perhaps we should add Johannes and Clara to the list.

Finally, for the last Lieder, we hear the voice of Clara. Brahms is now the stranger who has come into her life. “He came in storm and rain, he boldly stole my heart. Did he steal mine? Did I steal his?” The Sturm und Drang of the music reflects this unsettled spirit. Like the Finale of the Symphony that remains relentless until the end, this song portrays Clara as relentless in her love: “He remains mine, on any road.” Perhaps this was the road less travelled, for the relationship between these two was anything but ordinary. Better we appreciate what was extraordinary, in every letter, in every word, in every note. Brahms Beloved is a testament to this relationship in music.

Jerry: Did you know that some of Clara’s songs were mistaken for Robert’s because it’s believed that she signed his name to them after he became incapacitated, as a way of earning the income she needed to support herself and her children? A song by Robert would get published faster, sell more copies, and bring more money. We now know that some of those songs once thought to be by Robert were actually composed by Clara.

John: That hardly surprises me. Clara was a woman for the 21st century. She composed, was a famous soloist, had seven children, preserved the legacy of Schumann’s works, and nurtured Brahms. With all the discussion today about the role of women in society, Clara seems a fitting role model. We read much about Schumann encouraging her (as opposed to Mahler discouraging Alma), and her own self-criticism. It’s interesting to speculate how Brahms might have received all of this. His idealized image of Clara, combined with his own complicated perception of himself, was the perfect garden in which a romantic love could grow. And it did through letters and gestures, and a life together until the end.

Jerry: What first gave you the idea for this project?

John: I had wanted to make a recorded cycle of Brahms’s symphonies for some time, having started cycles in Lucerne and in France during my music directorships. I am sure most other conductors would agree that the symphonies of Brahms are among the few enduring core central works that retain a holy place in a conductor’s repertoire. My debut with the Milan Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra was the Brahms First Piano Quartet, arranged by Schoenberg. Immediately, I was astonished and impressed by their sound and style—the depth, the density, the detail. Though we play most of the core repertoire, from Mahler to Strauss to Beethoven to Tchaikovsky to Schumann, it was my wish to record the Brahms cycle with the orchestra as their principal conductor. I must credit James Inverne, the former editor of Gramophone Magazine, for sharing with me his idea of the symphonies and the Lieder as bonus tracks, commenting on the Clara/Brahms relationship. Being a pianist and a lover of voice, I immediately played the songs and realized a thematic and musical connection. Each poem inhabits different aspects of the character of Clara, as composer and lover. The symphonies reflect those aspects in emotion and sound. Once the idea was considered in depth, I enjoyed imagining Clara and Brahms and their alleged affair. It makes these historical figures come to life, to be more real to me. It exposes their humanity, just as the symphonies and songs reflect ours.

Jerry: More often than not, the singers we encounter performing the German Lied repertoire tend to specialize in the field. Was it a little unusual to cast two heavyweight operatic sopranos in the role of singing Clara Schumann’s songs? How did that come about?

John: When I met Indra Thomas in Paris, and she sang “Summertime” with Herbie Hancock and me jamming on the piano, I was reminded of Lillie May Williams, a Baptist minister in Texas who, fortunately for us, was also our nanny. She took my sister and I to the church, two little white kids, singing gospel and hallelujah in the service. She was the most tender, loving woman in the world, and had a voice, all velvety and sweet. Indra may be a big Verdi singer, and can project beyond the Arena di Verona, but the intimacy of her singing with me that night, convinced me that I wanted to work with her. That she also loved the Clara Schumann Lieder was the icing on the cake. Nicole Cabell has been singing bel canto roles since her Cardiff Singer of the World win. It was a great honor for me to work with her. Her German, her intonation, her professionalism, all are ideal. Her voice matches the joy heard in the Second Symphony, a kind of innocent idealism. Wolfgang Holzmair is considered one of the great Lieder specialists of our time. He has performed most of the Lieder repertoire and recorded much of it, but when he agreed to make the recording together, he was instrumental in choosing the songs. It was vital, especially as we wanted a male voice to represent the masculine nature of Clara, that the harmony of each song be comfortable. Other than the whole step transposition of Mein Stern, but staying in a “flat” key, all other Lieder remain in their original keys. This is an interesting point. All the Lieder maintain thematically and harmonically an atmosphere of melancholy and darkness, of reflection, yet expressed emotion. The flat harmonies, F, E♭, D♭, C Minor, and A♭—all these characterize the moods of the songs. It was essential that any transposition remain in these keys to capture the harmonic character. Finally, Felicity Lott needs no introduction. Her career in opera and Lieder has few comparisons. For the mature Clara, as expressed in the Lieder associated with the Third Symphony, the mood is passionate yet resolved, from the drama of Die Lorelei to the acceptance of Beim Abschied. It was the desire to match the character of the songs, and to portray the character of Clara in four distinct voices that guided the choice of singers While there are many wonderful singers ideal for these Lieder, that we chose these vocalists and were able to create the impression of four unique voices to reflect four different portraits of Clara to go with four different symphonies was a challenge well rewarded.

Jerry: Volume 1 of your Brahms-Schumann project begins with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. Was there a reason you began at the end, and then skipped back to the Second Symphony?

John: For me, and many others, the Fourth Symphony is the greatest of the symphonies, the summation of Brahms’s genius in symphonic form. This is not to diminish the greatness of the others, for they are all masterpieces. But my feeling is a little like my attitude towards advanced education: I want to go back to university when I retire, to fully understand what I study with a lifetime of experience behind me. So that I can finally say, yes, now I understand what Nietzsche, Rousseau, Kant, and Sartre were writing. So, in a way, after having studied and performed all these symphonies many times, it is only now, that I can look back and realize where Brahms went with his work. By starting with the Fourth, I feel I have the totality of his musical ideas, with his full life of compositional experience behind him. It makes the First more compelling, but also reveals the difficulty he had in finding his singular voice. It makes the Second more a work of a younger man smitten by love. The Third might be the closure after accepting the loss of his love. By the Fourth, he was ready to vent his feelings, conscious about his emotions, but unconsciously competent, and perhaps even confident, in his composing. That fascinates me.

Jerry: Why Brahms to begin with? His music certainly isn’t easy for the conductor or the orchestra, and there are so many recorded versions to choose from, ranging from two conductors who knew Brahms personally and who lived into the recording era—Max Fiedler and Felix Weingartner—to somewhat later podium greats of the 20th century—Furtwängler and Toscanini—to just about every conductor of the last 60 years and right up to the present day. Do you find that just a bit daunting?

John: I think any conductor wanting to record core repertoire today would consider it a daunting task. Especially as the market has changed so much since the days of Bernstein and Karajan, not to mention the others you mention. However, this repertoire is organic; it lives by the breath of the musicians who play it, and must never exist only in a vacuum or as a recorded museum piece. Brahms, like Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler, and any other great composer, is universal and timeless. Perhaps those conductors who knew Brahms understood the style of the music as performed under the conditions and limitations of the time, but music is not limited to time. It exists for all time and depending on the evolution of the instrument of the orchestra, so too can an interpretation change. Think about how Brahms loved working with the Meiningen ensemble when he wrote: “Von Bülow must know that the smallest rehearsal in the smallest Meiningen hall is more important to me than any Paris or London concert, and ... how good and comfortable I feel amidst the orchestra, I could sing aloud a long song of praise about it.” So can I. I feel good with my orchestra, and the way they play shows they not only understand the tradition and Germanic style of playing Brahms, but they offer something innovative, something fresh, that bit of sunshine that even Brahms himself preferred on his trips to Italy.

Jerry: Tell me about your appointment to and work with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi. It’s not an ensemble we’ve heard much from on record, but based on my hearing of it in your recording of two of Brahms’s symphonies it’s a quite brilliant band of players.

John: Well, they actually have recorded quite a great deal, most notably the 2010 Versimo CD with Renée Fleming that won the Grammy for best vocal performance. Of course, many a great orchestra could do that with Renée. But laVerdi offers something few orchestras have, their own auditorium. Most orchestras must rent their halls. Their sound may be connected to the hall, like the Berlin Philharmonie, Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam Concertgebouw, etc., laVerdi has crafted its sound in its own hall, and that hall, like the orchestra, is for the people of Milan, by the people and of the people. Their outreach is outstanding. Their commitment to the community is incalculable. Perhaps, being an Italian orchestra, it’s not recognized as much for symphonic output, as one expects opera from an Italian orchestra, but considering Chailly’s directorship of the orchestra and the many great conductors who have worked with laVerdi, it’s understandable why they have in their short history one of the most concentrated repertoires for any orchestra. As I noted previously, when I played Brahms with them upon my debut, I was deeply impressed, despite their young age, by their musical maturity. The same could be said of any symphony we played. Part of this is that they were created to provide a professional opportunity for the many wonderful musicians in this cultural capital so dominated by La Scala. They operate as a family, with none of the internal animosities often found in orchestras. If family is the dominant quality of Italian culture, it is then not surprising to see that quality in the orchestra. As you know, I wrote a book about the anthropology of the orchestra, first released in German with the title Wie Großartige Musik Ensteht ... Oder Auch Nicht, which is now released as an ebook on naxosbooks, called The Symphony Orchestra in Crisis. While many cultures have their advantages, there is a reason why Italian orchestras continue to nurture conductors. Think about it. As I wrote in my book: “Most Italian orchestras defy the stereotype of Italian chaos, as they are actually much more organized and professional than many would give them credit for, at least if one follows the idea that an orchestra reflects the politics of its culture. Italy has not had the most stable of governments since its unification but, after a Mussolini here and a Berlusconi there, it still remains the place where one can find the best conductors in the world, and some of the best orchestras. The list is long: Toscanini, de Sabata, Giulini, Abbado, Muti, Noseda, Luisi, Sinopoli, Gavazzeni, Gatti, Chailly, Pappano…. And therefore, the quality of the orchestras is consistently good. Somehow the conductor tradition, while being defined by the Kleibers and Karajans of history, remains firmly established in bella Italia. Another likely influence is the fact that Italy is a lyrical culture and all the conductors from Italy have their roots in the theaters of Naples, Genoa, Rome, Turin, Venice and, of course, Milan. The respect is great for the ancient traditions. It is the only country in the world where the orchestra still stands up for the entrance of the maestro at the first rehearsal. Maybe that’s why conductors like going there.” And that is why I like going there. They are a great orchestra. And they make me a better conductor.

Jerry: So what future plans do you have with the orchestra?

John: With laVerdi, anything is possible. We have recently toured Germany and of course made these recordings. We will continue my Mahler symphony cycle in Italy with the “Resurrection,” and continue our Strauss tone poem cycle and our Beethoven cycle with an ideal program of Ein Heldenleben and the “Eroica.” Ideally, I would like to continue recording, and naturally to tour the USA. But ideas are nothing without action, so I hope our recordings inspire your readers to buy the CD so that we can soon act upon that support and make more recordings and more tours. Most of all, we will continue to deepen our relationship with the Milan community, for that is where we are strongest. Without a public, an orchestra cannot exist. And without an orchestra, a conductor has no instrument. So it is clear the role of the orchestra is not only vital to both conductor and community but to the very culture of a country. That is something I respect very much in the laVerdi philosophy.

Jerry: Well, I won’t bid you farewell, because I understand that this interview is to be continued in the next issue of Fanfare to coincide with the release of Volume 2 in your Brahms-Schumann project. So, until then, keep up the good work and stay well.

John: And if I may, let me leave you with one more phrase from one of the Lieder, Beim Abschied, that might give us hope for what lies ahead:

“Noch ein Gruße, auf Wiedersehn,

S’ist kein Abschied, kein Vergehn.”

“Yet a wish to meet again,

T’is no parting, no farewell.”


C. SCHUMANN Am Strande.2,3 Ich stand in dunklen Träumen.2,3 Der Abendstern.2,3 Die stille Lotusblume.2,3 Er ist gekommen in Sturm und Regen.2,3 Liebst Du um Schönheit.2,4 Liebeszauber.2,4 Der Mond kommt still gegangen.2,4 Auf einem grünen Hügel.2,4 O Lust, O Lust2,4 • John Axelrod, (1cond, 2pn); 3Indra Thomas (sop); 4Nicole Cabell (sop); 1OS di Milano Giuseppe Verdi