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Brahms, Die Schöne Magelone Op. 33: Matthias Goerne (baritone), Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano),  Peter Mussbach (narrator),  Wigmore Hall, 15.01.2006 (ME) 

 

 

Dichterliebe, Winterreise, Die Schöne Müllerin and Die Schöne Magelone all tell of the progress of a man’s love for a woman and the effects of that love on his psyche, but only the last of them has a happy ending. These fifteen songs based on the novelist and dramatist Ludwig Tieck’s ‘Wondrous Love Story of the Beautiful Magelone and Peter, the Count of Provence’ found their first modern champion in Fischer-Dieskau, and his version still provides the standard by which others are judged. Matthias Goerne, having given a  revelatory performance of the Vier Ernste Gesänge at the Wigmore Hall, was bound to present his interpretation of Brahms’s only ‘song cycle’ and as one might have expected, he made the work sound totally fresh, however one might have felt about other aspects of the evening.

Brahms’s romantic sensibility finds its perfect mouthpiece in Goerne: whether singing lustily of the young count’s heroic ambitions or reflecting gently on the nature of true love, Goerne offered such persuasive advocacy for these romances that one really did find oneself asking why they so rarely come to mind as music one wants to hear. ‘Keinen hat es nich gereut’ set the tone; frank and confident in the lines about all the things the speaker hopes to see on his travels, yet suddenly tender when he considers that at the end of it all he will choose the maiden who pleases him most, and displaying beautiful colour at ‘Ein Lichtstrahl in der Dämmerung.’

‘Sind es Schmerzen’ is probably the song which would remind you most of Schubert, and Goerne sang it with passionate intensity, especially at the lines such as ‘Ach, Lust ist nur tieferer Schmerz, Leben ist dunkles Grab.’ The lovely ‘Liebe kam aus fernen Landen’ however was allowed to make its points with gentle understatement - these are really folk songs, and singers can make too much art of every one, but Goerne caught the atmosphere of this song to perfection. ‘Wie schnell verschwindet’ showed his expected mastery of technique and sensitivity to language, the difficult transition from the mood of ‘Die Sonne neiget’ to that of ‘Und Dunkel zieht’ managed with skill.

I am not quite sure why Elisabeth Leonskaja was the accompanist, since this is not really her forte, and it seemed to me that there was some variance of opinion here and there in terms of tempi and dynamics, most evident at the close of ‘Muss es eine Trennung geben?’ – not that this mattered much, given the quality of the singing. She provided lively, forthright playing and was clearly as committed to the work as the singer.

Brahms said that ‘a few introductory words’ would help audiences to understand the story behind the songs, but he did not, sensibly, endorse this practice. When this concert was first listed, the distinguished British actor Ian Holm was set to provide the narration –  by the time it got nearer however, Holm had been replaced by Peter Mussbach, a man no less distinguished in his own field – but that field happens to be direction, not acting. Now, the man responsible for the most recent Arabella at the ROH is someone at whom I wish to throw tomatoes, not to whom I want to listen. It would be fine if he were actually able to narrate, but he isn’t – he clearly has had no training in public speaking, and he delivered the narrative in a dry monotone. I could have done it better myself – at least I know how to project my voice, and how to give the right expression to words like Schönheit. The narratives were sometimes twice as long as the songs, and delivered in an unvarying, lecture – style tone: very tedious indeed. I also object to the voice reading over the piano’s vorspiel in a few songs – and as for my views on the reading overlapping with the singing…I can’t say words fail me, because they don’t. I’m sure that some kind of dramatic effect was being sought, but it did not work.

What did of course work was the singing, nowhere more so than in the final song, ‘Treue Liebe dauert lange.’ The sentiment that true love lasts forever may not be the sort of thing you associate with the end of a song cycle – grim acceptance of suffering or premature death might be more like it – but this beautiful song, so innocent and hopeful in its melody and phrasing, was sung with touching sincerity and heartfelt ardour, ‘liebliche, selige, himmlische Lust’ not only the final phrases but an exact description of this kind of singing; the best argument for the more  frequent performance of this neglected work.

 

 

Melanie Eskenazi 

 

 

 


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