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Brahms & Barolo by ©John Axelrod

As autumn arrives, so does harvest. That will include picking the purest grapes from the vine to make the best wine. Despite the self-declared vinicultural authority of France, Italy has an older tradition of producing wine than any other country in the Western world. The Bordeaux may be royal, but in Piedmont, in Northwest Italy, the Barolo, known as the "wine of kings, the king of wines," is the emperor. The Barolo, the favorite of the Royal House of Savoy (never mind the Savoie were French), is made from the Nebbiolo grape, and has, in the last 20 years, become less tannic and more drinkable, structured, with greater depth, density and complexity. With balanced notes of chocolate, spices, tobacco and herbs, dark fruits and tar, the Barolo of the 21st century is a deep experience that is never over the top, slightly restrained, but always intense. As a result, the new techniques of making Barolo have started what is commonly known as "The Barolo Wars," between the traditionalists and the innovative, globalized producers of these great wines. Barolo belongs to us, scream the purists. Nonsense, Barolo is for everyone is the response.

Ah, tradition versus innovation. The same can be said of Brahms. The emotional experience is derived from the music itself which can be performed with great authenticity around the world. Brahms is not programmatic or exclusive to any one time and place; there is no pre-determined expectation or cultural limitation. His symphonies are grand masterpieces of understatement, structural balance, depth and density, complex, yet approachable, all adjectives to describe the Barolo wine.

Just as the Barolo might have two sides to its interpretation, old school or new, so too does Brahms, though more defined by location. I once conducted a Brahms symphony with a German orchestra that was deep, dark, refined, reserved, phrased, and praised. That was in the East. In the West, the same Brahms symphony was light, transparent, affective, graceful and tempestuous, as in the Meiningen Court Orchestra style. Of this chamber orchestra, to whom we credit the conductor Hans von Bülow for making the introduction, Brahms wrote: ‘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…’

And I could sing long praises about the Barolo. Forget the London Claret and Parisian Bordeaux. The character of the Barolo is suited to the strong flavors of truffles, wild boar and pumpkin. Harvest time in autumn also means the beginning of a new concert season. This fall and winter, I will complete my Brahms symphony cycle for Telarc with the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, an orchestra that has a long history playing Brahms, from its early years with Riccardo Chailly as its Music Director to the present day. How can the laVerdi Brahms be experienced? There is much in common between cotoletta alla Milanese and wienerschnitzel as Milan was technically under Austrian rule between 1706 and 1859, with a Napoleonic break for a few years (Remember he was Corsican and a bit more Italian than most French would care to agree). Thus, Brahms by an orchestra from Milan is not something unholy to Brahmsian ears. Neither is the modern Barolo sacrilege to the oenophile's tongue.

While listening to the bright pastorale 2nd Symphony of Brahms in D major, try the lighter side of the Barolo, the Vietti Barolo Castiglione 2008, with 92 points ("Excellent") from Wine Spectator. For the titanic 1st, the Roberto Voerzio Barolo Rocche dell'Annunziata Torriglione 2000 rated at 100 points, will match the intense nature of the C minor symphony. For the accessible 3rd Symphony, the spiritual, mature side of Brahms is revealed, and would best be complimented by the very affordable Voerzio Barolo La Serra 1982 rated at 91 points. But for the Fourth Symphony, with all its tempestuous, dark fury, it would be hard to overlook the intense and dense Gaja 'Sperss' Langhe Nebbiolo DOC 2005, itself considered a famous work of art. Brahms and Barolo, German depth and Italian intensity, are perfect examples of taste and refinement, tragic and academic, polarized and potent, that go well together for everyone to experience and enjoy.