Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Die Schöne Magelone Op. 33 [53:59]
Dominik Wörner (bass-baritone); Masato Suzuki (piano)
rec. Musikhaus Marthashofen, Grafrath, 19-22 October 2010
German text and Japanese and English translations included
ARS 38 497 [53:59]

Song-cycles can either tell a story that is complete in itself or can require further explanation to understand how the words of the songs relate to each other or to some kind of narrative. It is understandable that the more obvious drama of the first group tends to be more popular with singers and listeners; Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben are good examples of this. Those in the second group can more problematic for the listener to relate to as a whole. None more so than those where the connecting link is some literary work from which the poems have been extracted and whose connection to each other derives essentially from other parts of that work. Such a cycle is Die Schöne Magelone, described by the composer simply as Fifteen Romances from Ludwig Tieck’s Magelone. Tieck (1773-1853) was an early Romantic poet whose fairy or folk tales had become very popular. The Story of Magelone the Fair and Peter Count of Provence has its roots in a French chivalric tale and also in a story from the Thousand and One Night Tales. It tells of a young travelling knight who falls in love with the daughter of a King. Although she is already betrothed she agrees to elope with him. An unfortunate and curious accident separates them when they are about to board a boat. Magelone becomes a shepherdess while Peter becomes the prisoner of a Sultan. He escapes by pretending to elope with the Sultan’s daughter and eventually the two lovers are reunited. The various songs which Brahms sets give no clear idea of these events. Some form of narrative link is needed if the listener is to be able to perceive them as any kind of whole.

This link has been achieved by different artists in various ways. Sometimes a separate narrator is employed, sometimes the singer tells the story himself, and sometimes the listener is left to read the story for himself. The last of these is chosen for this disc although the performers used images and Japanese subtitles for their live performances in Japan. The handsomely produced booklet contains an abridged version of Tieck’s story between the texts of the Romances. In itself this is a good idea, and the designers of the booklet have gone to considerable trouble to help the listener even more by including atmospheric paintings in full colour on each page, presumably deriving from the images used in live performance. Unfortunately the need to print all the text in three languages (German, Japanese and English) has resulted in an excessively small font size. In addition the paintings by Kensaku Fukazawa, whilst always apposite and delightful in themselves, mean that the text has to be printed in colours appropriate to the paintings, sometimes resulting in the text being almost entirely unreadable. This is a great pity as otherwise the presentation of the disc shows great imagination and effort. Nonetheless even with these criticisms I still prefer it to readings, especially on disc when one does not necessarily want to hear the whole of the narration each time.

The performance will matter most to potential purchasers and here it is quite simply superb. Masato Suzuki is the organist of the Bach Collegium Japan as well as the son of its director, Masaaki Suzuki. On the evidence of this disc, he shares his father’s keyboard skills and musical understanding. He plays an instrument by Johann Baptist Streicher and Sons of Vienna dating from 1870, just after the composition of the cycle, and identical to that used by Brahms at the time. Its clear and responsive sound gives tremendous pleasure in itself. There is never any sense of heaviness or of confusion in the texture, a tribute to both player and instrument. Dominik Wörner matches this responsiveness. He is clearly an experienced singer of Lied, with splendidly lucid diction, plenty of variation of colour, and a welcome willingness to allow the expression of the words to take precedence over the musical line when necessary. These are just the virtues needed to bring life to this long and somewhat diffuse cycle which can seem even longer in the wrong hands. It has been recorded by many distinguished artists, and there are many different legitimate approaches to its performance. Nonetheless, and despite my niggles over the imaginative if not entirely effective presentation, this is a performance very much worth hearing, in particular for the fresh responses of both singer and pianist with the aid of a very appropriate and wholly delightful choice of instrument.

John Sheppard

A performance very much worth hearing.