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John Axelrod on Brahms’s Symphonies and Clara Schumann’s Songs: Part Two

By Jerry Dubins

As promised at the end of my interview with John Axelrod in 37:3, here is the follow-up interview and review, covering John’s wrap-up of his Brahms symphony cycle with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, coupled with Clara Schumann’s songs. On deck this time are Brahms’s First and Third Symphonies, each paired with five of Clara’s songs, sung respectively by Wolfgang Holzmair and Felicity Lott.

Jerry: I recall joking in our first interview that it’s a good thing Brahms wrote only four symphonies instead of six, because it appears that Clara Schumann composed only 29 songs, so at five each per symphony, there wouldn’t have been enough songs to go around. But let’s talk first about the symphonies, and I’d like to start with the Third, because by most accounts, it’s Brahms’s most difficult symphony to conduct and to bring off successfully. Do you agree with that, and if so, what makes it so tricky?

John: Brahms 3 is difficult for several reasons. The ending scares every conductor, because intonation is so unpredictable, and if these pianissimo chords are out of tune, it can ruin everything done before. That’s why “bringing it off” is a challenge. But it’s his most beautiful symphony. The third movement is of course full of sehnsucht, but the second movement, the misterioso power of the finale, and the robust first movement are full of Brahms’s personal musical statements, of syncopations and hemiolas, of intense, dark, rhythmic and melodic passages. Tempos are also an issue. The relationship between the first and fourth movements is important. The Poco Allegretto of the third movement should actually be more poco, not be taken too quickly to achieve the right emotion. Finally, the Third is Brahms at his most mature moment. Or, as Hanslick said, “at his most nearly artistically perfect.” If in the Fourth he is bitter from life, or probably love, unfulfilled, he accepts his loss with the Third, arriving at the end to a certain peace with himself, the quiet side of Frei aber Froh. That kind of peace is the introverted “Self;” it’s not religious piety.

Jerry: I know that in combining Clara’s songs with Brahms’s symphonies, you’ve selected songs that bear some connection, be it in mood, emotional character, or musical expression, to the symphonies with which they’re paired. Of Brahms’s four symphonies, the Third seems to be the only one that contains a specific extra-musical alliterative association between its propelling F-A-F motive and the composer’s declaration of independence, “Frei aber froh.” Yet the music that grows out of this motive hardly strikes me as “happy.” What do you suppose Brahms meant by this?

 John: As I said, the introverted “Self.” Brahms composed his Third Symphony in Wiesbaden in 1883. This is a decade before Freud and Jung categorized and analyzed the “Self.” But that doesn’t mean the “Self” did not exist in musical expression. Or, as Balzac writes: “But does not the poet in us find expression in our affections?”

Brahms often commented on his music as being melancholic. If he, perhaps even jokingly, described his D-Major pastoral Second Symphony as “so melancholy you will not be able to bear it,” then imagine how melancholic the yearning and desire in this Third symphony must have been to Brahms.

He may have been free, but was he lying when we said he was happy? I think of the story of Mahler seeing Brahms in Bad Ischl, through the window, stricken with cancer, cooking his sausage alone in his home. Perhaps with the Third he was happy. By the Fourth, we feel Brahms’s pain.

Jerry: So which of Clara’s songs have you associated with the Third Symphony and what are the elements in those songs that you feel reflect or resonate with the “Frei aber froh” sentiment?

John: The songs are:

Das Veilchen (The Violet). Clara composed this song by Goethe the same year when she met young Brahms. The first moment of happiness.

Sie liebten sich beide (They Loved One Another), (Book 1, revised version). How happiness can be ephemeral.

Lorelei (Lorelei). The folly of infatuation

Ich hab’ in deinem Auge (In Your Eye I Beheld). The truth of happiness

Beim Abschied (On Parting). Acceptance

But not all are connected to that theme. This motive is a portrait of Brahms. What interests me is the portrait of Clara in the music. In this sense, the songs are more related. Each song sings of desire and loss. Each song has its story to tell. And each song sings of love. After the storm and shock of the Lorelei, there is a calm reconciliation, never a parting.

Jerry: We all know the story of Brahms’s trepidation surrounding the composing of his First Symphony. He felt the tramp of the giant, Beethoven, behind him, and his faltering self-confidence resulted in an inordinately long time, even for Brahms, to complete the score. He claimed that from his first sketches in 1855 to the symphony’s finishing touches in 1876, it took 21 years, by which time Brahms was 43 years old. Why do suppose it really took him so long to produce his First Symphony?

John: All good things come to those who wait. Really, the First Symphony is a young man with great ambition, hence our male singer, yet an insecure man in need of nurturing. Like Rastignac in Le Pére Goriot, “He had fallen a victim to that fever of the brain that accompanies the too vivid hopes of youth.” Only this fever lasted a long time. Bearing the burden of Beethoven must be like Atlas carrying the Earth. I can sympathize. It took me 12 years to realize I was indeed a conductor, as Bernstein predicted. But I could not follow in my master’s footsteps. How could there ever be another Bernstein? There could not. But I realized I could still be me. It took me 12 years, working in the record and wine businesses, and finally some years of study and practice before I could find myself in the music. It took Brahms a long time to find his voice in his symphony. Overt references to Beethoven’s Fifth Fate motive and the Ninth’s Ode to Joy “that any fool could hear” abound, and that’s probably Brahms saying, “And, so what if it sounds like Beethoven? You too should have that shadow hanging over you as I have!” But it is indeed Brahms. That intensity, those phrases over bar lines, the development of inner rhythms, the filling of space and density of sound, all this was his, and only his. The brooding glare that may be Beethoven’s corresponds to the German Romantic, but the darkness of the soul that emerges in the music of Brahms anticipates Freud and Jung’s discovery of the Pysche.

Jerry: It’s often said that Brahms’s First Symphony is his most Beethovenian; it was once even dubbed “Beethoven’s Tenth.” And surely, the resemblance of the famous theme in the last movement to the “Ode to Joy” theme in Beethoven’s Ninth must have contributed to that perception. But there’s nothing in Beethoven’s symphonies that parallels the kind of long, slow, almost creepy introduction to a concluding movement that Brahms gives us in this C-Minor Symphony. Fascinating, too, is the way Brahms subliminally disguises the famous tune that comes later in the opening Adagio measures of the last movement. Personally, I actually hear Brahms’s First as being the least Beethovenian symphony of all the Austro-German symphonies written after Beethoven’s Ninth, and that would include Schubert’s “Great,” and the symphonies of Spohr, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. In fact, I wonder if maybe what Brahms meant by the “tramp of the giant behind him” comment, and why it took him so long to compose his First Symphony was that he didn’t want to compose a work in the Beethovenian mold, a work that was just a continuation of the Classical-Romantic tradition of Spohr, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. What he wanted was a clean break, a work that would redefine the symphony for the second half of the 19th-century, as Beethoven’s symphonies had for the first half. What aspects of the work do you see as being decidedly non-Beethovenian?

John: Beethoven was the first ego in composition, the real rebel. If his “Pastorale” Symphony was more an expression of feeling than a description of events, there was nevertheless a certain biography of loss in the music. Five movements corresponding to the five stages of loss, according to E. Kubler-Ross: Denial, anger bargaining, depression and acceptance. The acceptance, yes, as the sun emerges from the clouds of the storm. Berlioz takes the biography further to hallucinatory levels. Brahms brings it back to earth, and internally experiences himself in this music. The more we know about the man, the more we hear in his music. So, one can certainly propose, as this cycle project does, that Brahms’s feelings for Clara are revealed in the depths of his symphonies. The Volkslied repeats that same ostinato drama of the introduction of the first movement. And I hear the fourth movement Adagio to the Allegro finale as being more closely related to the “Köln Dom” references to Schumann’s Third, also with a similar transition—sacred, permanent. If that was Brahms’s greatest ambition with his First Symphony it was this: To create a work that was as impervious to time as are the walls of the great cathedral. Thus, I would say Brahms is everything Beethoven was. I’m not sure there was anything non-Beethoven in his music. The only differences for me are the zeitgeist and the unique voice of Brahms.

Jerry: The transition from the first movement’s Un poco sostenuto to the Allegro seems to pose a dilemma of a mathematical correlation similar to the transition from the Andante to the Allegro ma non troppo in Schubert’s “Great” C-Major Symphony. What is your thinking about this, and how do you handle it?

John: I don’t get too analytical with the mathematics. For me, the Allegro is the logical conclusion of the prelude. These chords, still heavy and tenuto, the equivalent of the eighth equals the dotted-quarter of the Allegro. The key to create the character and make it work is to not rush the chords, but to make them like the pillars of an ancient temple. The actual Allegro comes five bars into the Allegro, with the motoric triplets in the second violins and violas creating the agitato feeling. With Schubert, it’s rather similar. Character can say so much more than a mere equation.

Jerry: I’m glad you mentioned that about the triplets because it brings up an aspect of Brahms’s music that is of special interest to me, and that is its extraordinary rhythmic complexity. I’m fond of quoting Alex Ross’s book, Listen to This, in which he devotes an entire chapter to Brahms, and states as forthrightly as anyone I’ve heard say it, “Brahms’s secret weapon is rhythm.” And noted composer, Gunther Schuller, observed of a passage in the first movement of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony that “it’s so rhythmically multi-layered there’s nothing like it even in the Rite of Spring.”

I have my own theory about Brahms’s rhythmic intricacies and convolutions. I think it has something to do with his deep interest, even immersion, in the polyphony of the late 15th- and early 16th-century Franco-Flemish masters, such as Ockeghem, La Rue, Isaac, Brumel, and Josquin des Prez. Theirs was music composed in a mensural or pre-metric system of notation in which the durations of note values were not based on a strictly hierarchical 2:1 relationship of two halves equal a whole, two quarters equal a half, two eighths equal a quarter, and so on. With the advent of the metric system, rhythm became locked into the “beat,” just as the moon is locked into orbit with the Earth. We even coined a term for it to describe the regularity of beat in much music of the Baroque and early Classical periods: “tyranny of the bar-line.”

The triplet plays a really major role in a good deal of Brahms’s music, and if you think about it, the triplet (three beats in one), especially when set against groupings of two or four notes, which Brahms loves to do, is really kind of a holdover from the earlier mensural system. The triplets you mention, beginning in bar five of the Allegro, are only the beginning of a rhythmic battle of epic proportions to be fought out in the symphony’s first movement. The combatants are the triplets, both on the beat and off—DA-da-dum, DA-da-dum; and da-da-da-DUM, da-da-da-DUM—and two eighth-notes, both on the beat and off—da-Dum, da-Dum; and DA-dum, Da-dum. We hear these conflicting patterns fighting each other throughout the movement, but it’s not until bar 430, where the DA-da-dum figure begins once again, this time in the violas, that Brahms is going to press on with the passage further than he has on its earlier occurrences. Now the confrontation erupts in a full-scale fight to the death. It’s musical Armageddon as all four of these rhythmic motives clash against each other simultaneously. When the war finally ends in bar 474, only the bloody entrails are left on the battlefield, as the movement’s denouement recalls the opening strains of the introduction and the shattered remnants of the da-Dum, da-Dum motive echo in the pizzicato strings. What are your thoughts about Brahms’s rhythmic procedures?

John: Well, you hit the nail on the button. Everyone loves Brahms because of these intense, deeply felt melodies, especially in the famous 3rd movement of Symphony 3. But the rhythm is not really a secret weapon, though it’s a nice phrase, intimating that composers were tactical spies competing with each other for dominance.

I have two theories, both of which influence my interpretation. First, Brahms had an enormously complicated psyche. Is there a romantic artist who didn’t? Understanding the introverted nature of that psyche, and perhaps his relationships to the Schumanns and others—which has had an impact on the concept of the Brahms Beloved CD—can help to understand that “battlefield” as you describe it in your question. Rhythmic layers upon layers not only create musical energy, tempo, movement, and character, the “blood coursing through the veins” if you will, but they reveal the many layers of his psychology. It’s impossible to accurately describe Brahms’s ego and id in a few sentences. His Requiem is a clear manifestation of his grief over the loss of this mother, and perhaps Clara was his Oedipal replacement. The First Symphony is his burden, the mantle of overcoming the shadow of Beethoven. The loss of Robert and the unconsummated love with Clara became a source of inspiration and stress.

According to Brahms biographer Jan Swafford, (who writes the liner notes for this Brahms Beloved CD of the Symphonies 1and 3), Brahms said to a friend after a drunken stupor, “You tell me I should have the same respect, the same exalted homage for women you have. You expect that of a man cursed with a childhood like mine.” When you hear these threes against fours, dotted rhythms against long melodies, and sudden luftpausen after long stretches of accelerandi, one can imagine this man, on the couch, finally releasing all this inner angst though his music. Brahms chose not to be so obvious on the outside, and his connection with Hanslick to the concept of abstract, pure music might simply have been a calculated effort to hide his public self, unlike Liszt or Wagner, who perfected the art of self-promotion. But the music betrays his privacy.

The other part of my theory is more rhythmical, and this it not only points to the 

rhythmic ideas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (think “Eroica”), but even earlier to the pre-metric rhythms of pre-Baroque composers, as you mention. That is the hemiola, the ratio of a vertical 3:2 (that is 3 against 2), arguably Brahms’s real secret weapon. The triplets seem to become then only a reduced version of that longer hemiola, and its effect is heard not only in the grouping over two- bars measures in 3/4 where the first beat, then the third beat, and then the second beats are emphasized. We can also think of the early minuet: 1+2+-3, 1+2+3, 1-2-3-4-5-6, with the first, third, and fifth beats of the third measure articulated. Examples of this abound everywhere in his music.

Brahms also introduces another form of the hemiola in his phrasing in these incredible phrases which begin before the bar line in the first movement of Symphony No. 3 just before and after the second repeat. Or, listen to the tension in the phrases of the strings and winds in the bars before the horn restarts the melody in movement three of the Third symphony. Here, it’s as if the music is reaching out to some unknown place or person, searching, desiring, full of sehnsucht, and hemiolas. This rhythmical energy of the hemiola, whether fast or slow, is a unique way to create an end of a phrase, a change of harmony or a final statement. This is Brahms’s way of saying yes, no, maybe and then, finally, amen.

Jerry: Well, you’ve obviously thought about this a lot, and I don’t mean to belabor the point, but as I’m sure you’d agree, Brahms’s rhythmic conundrums go considerably beyond the three-against-two hemiola device. One of his real mind-benders, to me at least, comes, if memory serves, at a point in the Horn Trio, or perhaps it’s in one of the string quartets—I can’t remember which now—where you have what amounts to the opposite of a triplet. Instead of three eighth-notes in a meter of 3/4 or 4/4 being bracketed with a 3 over the top to indicate that they’re to be compressed into one beat, you have two eighth-notes in a compound meter of 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8 bracketed with a 2 over the top to indicate that they’re to be s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d out to equal the duration of three eight-notes.

In fact, in a recent interview I did with Zak Grafilo, first violin of the Alexander String Quartet, he cited a notoriously difficult syncopated figure for the second violin and two violas in the Adagio of the op. 36 String Sextet, explaining that the two violas and second violin must play a descending syncopated tied figure, while the first cello plays an ascending quarter note figure that lies directly on the beat. “If everyone played rhythmically accurately,” Grafilo said, “the notes would line up; but musically, it probably wouldn’t make much musical sense, nor would it sound very good.” This reinforced my own sense that some of Brahms’s rhythmic entanglements are so twisted and counterintuitive, and that they present such mathematically improbable ratios and fractionalizations of the beat that players tend to fudge them as best they can because they simply can’t be played exactly as written, and even if they could, as Grafilo put it, they probably wouldn’t make much musical sense or sound very good.

But this leads to yet another question, and that is the “how.” How did Brahms come up with these extraordinarily complex rhythms? Did he lie awake at night parsing them in his head? We know that he was methodical and meticulous in his composing. One of my favorite stories, probably fictional, is of Brahms visiting his favorite pub one evening where his beer buddies ask him, “So, Herr Johannes, what did you do today?” To which Brahms replies, “I worked on my symphony. This morning I put an eighth-note rest in; then, this afternoon, I took it out.”

If true, such a story would go a long way towards explaining how Brahms came up with the rhythmic complexities he did. And as we also know, he was so self-critical that he destroyed many of his own works, deeming them unworthy of publication. What does this tell you about the man’s psyche?

John: And yet, if he was so meticulous and destroyed all his sketches, then what do we make of his sending the original manuscript of his Third symphony to Clara on her birthday? Instead of customary flowers because the shop was too far away, he risked, perhaps intentionally, in receiving her maternal lecture that he could have lost the score in the post. I suppose we could say love conquers all, including self-discipline.

So this leads to his psyche. We know Mahler visited Freud. With Brahms we don't have that benefit because psychoanalysis had not yet been identified. With Brahms we have some evidence and the rest is all speculation. But from what we do know, Brahms would have made an ideal patient for the doctor. Let's look at his case history:

Descriptions of Brahms’s personality are many, and all describe a complex man full of contradictions. He was faithful to some and rejecting of others. He was a wise thinker and an immature lover. He was dry and sarcastic in humor and loving in his letters. He was stingy with critics and generous with musicians. He was open to new ideas and private in person. And he was a confirmed bachelor for life, frequenting brothels, yet remained loyal to Clara, despite his affairs and her one with their mutual friend, Theodor Kirchner.

Think about it; his psychological damage was profound at an early age. Here was a boy sent to work by his parents in bars and brothels at 13. No doubt his misogyny and confusion were created at this tender age. As he grew, he remained boyish, without facial hair, even into his twenties. No wonder he grew a permanent beard when he could. He was able to bury his mixed emotions in his love of nature, his music, and most of all in the confessional, nurturing relationship he found in his “surrogate” family, the Schumanns.

Yet, despite his living with this large, bourgeois family, he was destined never to follow the comforts of married life. He was embraced by intellectuals as an academic, but he remained an outsider to society. While he may sound like a normal, confused man of today, he was as tortured as any of the suffering artists whose tragic lives we moderns romanticize. That Brahms’s personal life was less vivid than that of Wagner’s is no reason to believe he did not suffer from demons. On the contrary, he may have suffered more.

But I think we must see how his strict compositional process reflects this tortured soul. Here, in all these complex rhythms, some which are architecturally astonishing yet musically challenging, is where Brahms found his equilibrium. He found a way to create psychic boundaries by putting all these rhythmic feelings and melodic emotions into classical structure and form. One eighth-note entered and then erased might seem sufficient to serve as evidence of an anal, nay, analytical composer, but it might have been the necessary balsam to give him a good night’s sleep.

Jerry: I should think that the highly dramatic, emotionally volatile nature of the First Symphony would present more of a challenge than the Third in terms of finding songs by Clara Schumann to complement it. The songs you chose are:

Volkslied (Folksong)

Sie Liebten sich Beide (Book 2, original version) 

Warum willst du and’re fragen (Why do you ask others)

Mein Stern (My Star)

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

Characterize these songs for me, if you would, and describe how they fit the musical and psychological profiles of the symphony.

John: As I wrote, the Volkslied is musically connected both with the ostinato in C, and the dramatic, Beethovenian elements in the musical phrase.

Sie Liebten is the first of the two songs with the same words, a duet of love and loss, to be sung in the voice of Brahms and the other as Clara. This poem, from Heine, clearly portrays the two unconfessed lovers that have parted, only to see each other in dreams.

Warum willst du and’re Fragen is the total declaration: Whatever my lips say, See my Eyes: I love you. This is a young man passionate about his chances at love and life.

In Mein Stern, his thirst for love is quenched by a yearning desire.

And Die Gute Nacht, is his desire of continuity. The moon will rise with the fervent dream of hoping the better for the other.

I cannot imagine what Brahms must have felt upon hearing the premiere of his First Symphony. But perhaps he finally believed what Schumann had said those many years before in 1853, when he met his mentor, when Brahms first started his sketches which would eventually overcome the chains of guilt and intimidation 21 years later: “He, the ‘Chosen One,’ is “destined to give ideal expression to the times.” And that he did.

 C. SCHUMANN Songs: Volkslied, Sie Liebten sich Beide (Book 2, original version); Warum willst du and’re fragen; Mein Stern; Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage; Das Veilchen; Sie liebten sich beide; Lorelei; Ich hab’ in deinem Auge; Beim Abschied  ●  John Axelrod (pn), cond; Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi O; Wolfgang Holzmair (bar); Felicity Lott (sop)  

This concludes John Axelrod’s labor of love, aptly titled, “Brahms Beloved,” an exploration through the poetry of music and the music of poetry the deep emotional connection between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.

As noted in my previous interview with Axelrod in 37:3, Clara Schumann penned only 29 songs, most of which, if not all of them, she composed before that fateful day in October, 1853, when Brahms arrived at the Schumanns’ doorstep in Düsseldorf. So, we have to grant Axelrod poetic license in associating Clara’s songs with Brahms’s symphonies. In fact, we know of only one instance in which Brahms encrypted a personal reference into one of his works, and it wasn’t a reference to Clara. The encryption—A-G-A-D-H (B)-E—occurs in bars 162–168 of the G-Major String Sextet, and is a reference to Agathe von Siebold, the woman to whom Brahms was engaged and almost married. Nevertheless, whatever the nature of the relationship was between Clara and Brahms, it was the single most enduring relationship of his life, and his feelings for her obviously found both an outlet and expression in many of his works.

None of the songs sung here is new to record—they’re all included on Hyperion’s album of Clara’s songs sung by Susan Gritton and Stephan Loges, and accompanied by Eugene Asti—but they’re sung here by two of the leading lieder vocalists of our time, Wolfgang Holzmair and Felicity Lott, with keen insight into their meaning and with great beauty of tone. Nor should it be forgot that John Axelrod, in addition to his conducting skills, is a fine pianist who accompanies Holzmair and Lott with exceptional sensitivity to the differing timbres of their voices, as well as to Clara’s caringly crafted and carefully considered piano parts. She was, after all, first and foremost, a pianist to be reckoned with in her day.

Turning to the symphonies, Axelrod has already proven himself a master of Brahms with his previous release of the Second and Fourth Symphonies. Here he puts on his conductor’s hat to lead Brahms’s most popular symphony, the No. 1, and arguably his most difficult, at least from the vantage point of the podium, the No. 3.

Axelrod’s way with the C-Minor Symphony is authoritative and commanding. From the very first downbeat, one senses the shaping of a performance by a master builder. When Axelrod picks up his baton, he turns into a different Axelrod than the one analyzing Brahms’s psyche and romanticizing the composer’s inner emotional and psychological life. The conductor’s approach is one of architectural breadth and structural integrity. One hears it immediately in the exact 2:1 tempo relationship Axelrod achieves between the Un poco sostenuto introduction and the ensuing Allegro. One also hears it in the meticulous marking of the opposing rhythmic motives that drive the movement forward. Nor does the performance lack for sheer beauty of playing by the Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi Orchestra—listen to the sinuous violin lines entwining in the second movement, and the sylvan woodwind exchanges in the third movement—or for dramatic impact—listen to the blazing brass in the grand finale, one of Brahms’s most triumphant codas. And further to his credit, Axelrod observes the often skipped first-movement exposition repeat.

The challenging Third Symphony is also masterfully led and played. If one measures a work’s popularity by its number of recordings, the F-Major Symphony is Brahms’s least popular, though we’re still talking over 200 versions currently listed.

The return of the score’s opening material in modified form at the end of the last movement suggests that Brahms may have been experimenting with cyclic form or perhaps a type of thematic transformation. It’s certainly a departure, though, from his previous two symphonies, which end in a blaze of glory, and from the symphony to come, which ends with the lemmings trampling each other in their eager, headlong rush to extinction. The quiet, reflective ending of the Third Symphony is something new and different for Brahms; few of his major works I can think of end this way. Indeed, there’s something enigmatic about this whole symphony. Except for a few passages in the first and last movements, there’s not a lot of drama; yet, the score’s lyricism is not of the pastoral nature encountered in the Second Symphony. Too, there seems to be a sort of material sameness to the tempos and textures, which don’t provide much opportunity for contrast; yet at the same time, there’s an underlying restiveness or discontent in this music that contradicts its Frei aber froh incipit.

What is the listener or, for that matter, the conductor to make of this puzzling work? I’ll admit that I’ve been listening to and loving Brahms for a very long time, but his Third Symphony is a score I still find it difficult to come to grips with. John Axelrod’s reading goes a long way towards helping me overcome my perplexity. I think his secret is to make every effort to clarify the music’s contrapuntal and rhythmic complexities, but without imposing additional tempo and dynamic adjustments beyond those that Brahms indicated, and without italicizing points of articulation to create extra stress or tension where the composer doesn’t call for it. Of Brahms’s four symphonies, the Third, I think, is the one least tolerant of meddling, and Axelrod doesn’t meddle. The result is a performance that allows the music to speak for itself, and with this fine Italian orchestra under Axelrod’s astute leadership, we get a clean, clear-eyed, unfussy Brahms Third that radiates a warm, inner glow.

Add to this Telarc’s magnificent recorded sound, produced by Michael Fine and Wolf-Dieter Karwatky, and you have a pair of Brahms symphonies for the ages. I can’t urge you too strongly to acquire this two-disc set, and its previous companion, if you didn’t already do so when it was enthusiastically reviewed, not just by me, but also by Dave Saemann and Lynn René Bayley. Jerry Dubins