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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Die Schöne Magelone
Christian Gerhaher (baritone)
Gerold Huber (piano)
rec. November 2014, Studio 2, Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
SONY CLASSICAL 88985413122 [53:56]

Let’s get the complaints out of the way first. It is unforgiveable for Sony to release a major work of the German song repertoire, with one of their key classical artists, without the full texts and translations in the booklet notes. All you get is the English translation (no German), laid out in a very tiresome manner that is not at all easy on the eye and which, I presume, was done only to save space and, therefore, cost. Yes, you can probably find the texts online if you look hard enough but, when you’re paying mid to full price for the CD, why should you have to? Furthermore, it’s short-changing the customer, in this day and age, to put out a CD at less than one hour’s running time, even if it is one major work. Surely a filler could also have been chosen as a coupling?

That grumble over, I can report that the performance itself is excellent, and one of the finest to have appeared in recent years. I and others have sung the praises of Christian Gerhaher elsewhere in these pages, and this probably isn’t the place to repeat myself. I will just reiterate that he is one of the finest vocal storytellers at work today, and Brahms’ cycle gives him plenty of opportunities to do what he does best. You get that right from the opening song, in fact, with a heroic tone to describe Count Peter’s chivalric wanderings, that Gerhaher then softens markedly at the phrase “Dann wählt er beschieden” as he changes the focus to the maiden that he woos. Insights like this come all through the cycle, not least in Wie schnell verschwindet so Licht als Glanz, the only song for Magelone herself, which Gerhaher gives a much softer, more feminine tone.

He unleashes his finest, vollromantisch yearning for Sind es Schmerzen in a manner that almost resembles Wagner’s Tristan, while in Wie soll ich die Freude he marries exterior bliss with the deepest, inward reflectiveness. That passion then bleeds into the outwardly simpler Liebe kam aus fernen Landen, which sees the voice transform from the passion of the first verse to the simplicity of the last, giving us the same music but a deeply changed experience. The blissful lullaby of Ruhe, Süßliebchen is full of tenderness and gentle longing, and he doesn’t overdo the drama of Verzweiflung, instead turning it into a mirror of the character’s internal suffering.

In all of this he is matched by pianism of great insight from Gerold Huber. I loved the galloping effect in Keinen hat es noch gereut, and the strumming of Sind es Schmerzen that resembles a romantic harp. The piano is resplendent with the bliss of nature in So willst du des Armen and mirrors the voice in running through a whole range of effects in Wir müssen uns trennen, from the turbulence of the ocean to the clanking of armour in battle. He feels totally at one with the voice in Ruhe, Süßliebchen, and both find their pinnacle in the consummation of the final song, whose hymn-like opening seems to bless the lovers’ reunion, and the final minutes feel like closing a loop not just on the song but on the whole cycle.

Gerhaher even challenges the supremacy of his teacher, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in this cycle, so great are his insights. Of course, not even he can solve the cycle’s inherent narrative problems: Brahms sets a series of poems that were extracted from a much longer novella, which has the effect of isolating various moments from their overarching story, making it impossible to reconstruct the story from those poems alone; something that’s impossible to remedy without external help. Roderick Williams tries to remedy this on his (just released) recording for Champs Hill, by interpolating the prose narrative between the songs. You’ll have to hear it for yourself to see if you find Williams’ once-upon-a-time style helpful rather than distracting: at least he gives you a second disc without the narrative, too.

So, despite the slap on the wrists for the packaging, this is a very fine release that deserves to win more friends for the work as well as more admiration for the artists.

Simon Thompson



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