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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Die schöne Magelone op.33 (including a narration of Tieck’s novella from which the poems are drawn)
Inge Borkh (reciter), Konrad Jarnot (Baritone), Carl-Heinz März (piano)
Recorded 4th-6th April and 28th August 2002 in Studios 2 and 6 of the Bavarian Radio
ORFEO C 050 041 A [77:12]


This looks like a good idea if you have perfect German (I haven’t). The problem with Brahms’s one song cycle has always been that the poems offer a commentary on the various stages of a fairly involved story of love, magic and chivalry set in the middle ages, but you cannot follow the story just through the poems, as you can those of the great cycles of Schubert and Schumann, which in any case deal in much more direct, personal emotions. With a CD, of course, you can read the story in the booklet, and of the various alternatives around, that by Andreas Schmidt and Helmut Deutsch in CPO’s complete Brahms Lieder Edition (Vol. 3), for one, provide this.

Alternatively, you can have somebody to read the text of the novella by Tieck so that the songs are slotted into context. Unfortunately, just to limit the attractions of this present disc fairly and squarely to the German-speakers-only club, Orfeo have had the bright idea of publishing the texts and translations of the songs but not of the recitations, preferring to devote the available space in the booklet to a detailed review of the performances (I must point out again that it is not credible for a CD booklet to include a rave review of the performance if only because it would be unthinkable to express in such a place the opposite view. If you can find me a single CD booklet which contains commentary on the lines of "Messrs. X and Y were well below form on a cold and foggy morning and became increasingly grumpy as the sessions wore on. Only the skilled diplomacy of the producer in the face of increasing demands to ‘call the whole bloody thing off’ ensured that a performance of sorts was set down", well then, I’ll eat my hat).

However, if non-German speakers have by now concluded that this is not for them, I am not so sure. Obviously, a certain interest lies in hearing the voice of Inge Borkh, a retired Swiss soprano once famous for her involved interpretations of the more dramatic roles of Richard Strauss and still active as a teacher. There is music still in her voice, even if she is not singing, and her expressionist manner certainly makes you wish to know what it is all about.

But even more, because the performance of the songs is quite extraordinarily fine. I realise that Orfeo themselves have also issued the legendary Salzburg performance in 1970 by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Sviatoslav Richter and on one level this may be impossible to match – Richter’s tonal shading at the beginning of no.3, for example, is the sort of thing other pianists, even great ones, may despair of ever approaching – and the great baritone’s voice retains its rare beauty even under dramatic pressure. But Jarnot and März are also fine artists and they remind us that this cycle was the work of a still youthful Brahms, intent on recapturing the spirit of a romantic fairy story he had loved since his childhood. While other performances make the usual serious Brahmsian sounds, this one avoids being shackled to the image of the adult composer. The booklet’s comparison of Brahms’s world here with that of the Magic Flute sounds credible in this performance, less so with others. So in the end, even if you are not a German speaker (and you can always programme just the music), I have to recommend this version above the others. But try to find the story on Internet somewhere.

Christopher Howell

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