Magazine article Gramophone

John Axelrod: Geoffrey Norris Talks to the American Conductor about Brahms's Symphony No 4

Magazine article Gramophone

John Axelrod: Geoffrey Norris Talks to the American Conductor about Brahms's Symphony No 4

Article excerpt

It must have been for A level that we 'did' Brahms's Fourth Symphony and my Eulenburg miniature score is neatly adorned with pencilled analytical wisdoms such as 'first subject' and 'sonata rondo form'. John Axelrod's Dover score, edited by Hans Gal, bears witness to rather more punishing and penetrating use. It's covered in markings more elaborate than mine. Some pages are also hanging by a thread, all but torn from the binding.

We spend two hours going through the symphony, which Axelrod considers to be the most difficult of the four, and devote a few moments at the start trying to read a word he's written in thick black against the cello and viola parts. It turns out to be 'propel'. The tune is in the violins, but Axelrod maintains that the rising figures in the cellos and violas are the 'lifeblood' coursing through the music's veins. He later points to passages where Brahms's anger rises to the surface. The Fourth, he says, is a symphony inextricably linked to Brahms's relationship with Clara Schumann. Is it a musical manifestation of his bittersweet resentment that he had not achieved personal happiness with her? Axelrod cites the slow movement, which has the air of 'walking down a colonnade observing the past'.

Elsewhere, the majesty and lyricism of the music are punctuated with fury: for example, in bars 41-44 of the first movement, the divisi violas and second violins seem to inject an element of rage and frustration. Alertness to detail was inculcated in Axelrod by studies (likened to the rigours of a boot camp) with Christoph Eschenbach. From the great Russian pedagogue Ilya Musin he learned about 'articulation, gesture, breadth and pulsation'; from Leonard Bernstein the art of communication. Talking passionately about the Fourth Symphony, he frequendy breaks into song, whether tender or irate, to make his point about the overall dichotomy of the music's expression, but his fighting on minutiae of scoring is indubitably a sign that he has taken Eschenbach's advice to heart. Why, for example, did Brahms not include the oboes in the sotto voce woodwind passage at bars 188-91 of the opening movement, bringing in the first oboe only at bar 192 with a single C before it goes on to play a sighing phrase? Maybe, thinks Axelrod, Brahms wanted the textures here to be airy and thought that the oboe timbre might obtrude. In any case, he's written 'early' in his score at that juncture to ensure the oboe is ready with that C. Why are the timpani missing from bar 204 in the finale, when they are playing their triplet quavers in bars 201-03 and 205-07? …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.