Johannes and Clara, the mysterious love story

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition 30.11.2013

The intensity of the relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann has intrigued music historians for 150 years and now conductor/pianist John Axelrod has tackled the liaison with a new double CD set (Brahms Beloved, Telarc) linking them in words and music. It’s a great concept, beautifully realized. Why had no one thought of this before?

The ambiguities of the intimacy are well known, and there is no point seeking further evidence of a more physical affair. Clara, a composer in her own right and one of the most prominent pianists of her time, burned a pile of letters that probably would have told more than we want to know. Anyway, for me, accepting this liaison as unconsummated makes for an even more poignant story. Set to music, as it is here, brings the affair graphically back to life. 

Axelrod builds his tribute around the Brahms Symphony No. 4 and Symphony No. 2.  Film maker Ken Russell would love these sensuous recordings with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi under the Axelrod’s baton. Axelrod, a former student of Leonard Bernstein, paired up the symphonies with a relevant selection of songs written by Clara Schumann. The first group is sung by soprano Indra Thomas; the second by young bel canto Nicole Cabell. Axelrod accompanies both at the piano with heightened emotion.

The Fourth Symphony is particularly suggestive. Russell has called it “the sex act set to music”. The CD’s liner notes describe it more decorously as being in a “yearning, determined mood”, and coupled with five Clara’s songs of the same sensibility. Ms. Thomas has just the vocal timbre for such lyrics as Der Abendstern (The Evening Star). In part, the poem reads: 

Are you really so far,

Loveliest glittering star?

Secretly each hour I am

Yearning to travel to you.

The second CD in the set begins with a thrilling performance of the Second Symphony, paired with another five of Clara’s kindred songs, of which Liebeszauber (Love’s Magic) is perhaps the most evocative of elusive love: 

Now love once like a nightengale

In rosebush perched and sang;

With sweetest wonder flew the sound

Along the woodland green.

I waked along that path one day

And also heard the sound.

Alas! Whatever since I’ve sung

Was just its faint echo.

Brahms, who was mentored by composer Robert Schumann,  launched himself into an extended period of work on his First Symphony  shortly after declaring his love for Schumann’s wife Clara. A letter survives in which he declared, “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? 

With these clues in mind, Axelrod felt justified in exploring the notion of Clara’s personality being secretly embedded in the Brahms symphonies.

Axelrod is quoted in the notes as offering this further rationale: 

”If you listen to the Brahms symphonies, 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 into very similar four moods. I believe that Clara’s own personality is in those songs, and so if that it true, it is also possible to think of the four Brahms symphonies as portraits of Clara – four different aspects of her.”

More is coming. A second double set of Clara’s songs, matched with Brahms’ other two symphonies, is scheduled for release next year with Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair and English soprano Dame Felicity Lott.

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