Brahms: Die Schone Magelone, Op 33 (Versions with and without Narration)

By Stearns, David Patrick | Gramophone, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Brahms: Die Schone Magelone, Op 33 (Versions with and without Narration)


Stearns, David Patrick, Gramophone


Brahms

Die schone Magelone, Op 33 (versions with and without narration). Vier ernste Gesange, Op 121 Roderick Williams bar/narr Roger Vignolespf Champs Hill (M) (2) CHRCD108 (154' * DDD * T/t)

'I am a sucker for late-Romantic song or perhaps for histrionic fairy tales of derring--do and blushing maidens', states baritone Roderick Williams in the introductory notes for his recording of Die schone Magelone. Such an explanation is necessary: this is hardly dress-for-success repertoire for any baritone, whether up-and-coming or fully established. But the passion and commitment behind this recording are palpable at every turn. As much as I loved Christian Gerhaher's recent Die schone Magelone on vocal and interpretative terms and will certainly return to it for its Germanic authority, Williams has put together the kind of Anglo-friendly package that has been missing from the Brahms discography of late.

Die schone Magelone isn't a song-cycle as much as it's a narrated saga punctuated by songs that comment on the story rather than actually telling it. Understanding the music is dependent on knowing how it fits in the story about a prince who finds his beloved, loses her and finds her again. Thus one need not struggle so much with the dated verse used in the songs because the narration has skilfully set up the song's place in the saga. No, this isn't a crutch or an easy way out, but the way Die schone Magelone was meant to be--and is for German-speaking audiences. Having that context also elucidates some of Brahms's unconventional forms that are ostensibly through-composed but are actually built from discrete fragments, somewhat in the spirit of Schumann's Dichterliebe. But for those who don't want to experience the narration on every listening, the second disc has the Magelone songs only plus, in contrast to these early Brahms songs, the darker, late-period Four Serious Songs.

Of course, the clever packaging would mean little without performances of Williams's calibre. His medium-weight baritone makes every phrase clean, clear and unaffected. The gravity of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's recordings isn't missed since these are youthful songs and don't really benefit from being delivered from the viewpoint of what Brahms would become later on. …

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