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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Romanzen aus Die schöne Magelone, Op. 33* [80:37]
Vier Ernste Gesänge, Op 121 (1896) [16:25]
Romanzen aus Die schöne Magelone, Op. 33 (1861-69) [56:32]
Roderick Williams (baritone & narrator); Roger Vignoles (piano)
rec. 10-13 November, 2014, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK. DDD
* includes narration of Roger Vignoles’ English translation of Ludwig Tieck’s Liebesgeschichte der schöne Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence
German texts & English translations (songs) & English text (narration) included
CHAMPS HILL RECORDS CHRCD108 [80:37 + 72:57]

Brahms composed the fifteen songs that comprise his cycle, Romanzen aus Die schöne Magelone over an extended period between 1861 and 1869. The texts are poems from Liebesgeschichte der schöne Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (Romance of the Fair Magelone and Peter, Count of Provence) by Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853). Tieck’s novella, written in 1796, was but one version of a twelfth-century Provençal story; Brahms first came upon Tieck’s text when he was a teenager.

Though the songs are in effect a song cycle, Daniel Jaffé points out in his very useful notes that Brahms’ own preference was to hear just two or three of them performed at a time and he rejected a suggestion of his publisher that a linking narrative should be provided. However, if the listener is unfamiliar with the story such a narrative can be more than helpful. In live performance this can be a problem, though, because either one needs to engage a narrator or else if the singer speaks a narration he gets no opportunity for a breather. This new Champs Hill release gives us the welcome option either to hear the songs sung in sequence or to enjoy them with a spoken narration interspersed between the vocal numbers. Here the narration is provided in the shape of an adapted English translation by Roger Vignoles. This raises the issue that the performance on Disc 1 is given in two languages: sung German and spoken English. Personally I have no problem with that.

It seems that the inclusion of the narration was not originally planned. In a preface to the booklet Roderick Williams says this: “When the sessions were all but finished, I begged for the indulgence of those present and asked to record Roger’s English narration, pretty much on a whim.” A whim it may have been, but Williams’ immaculate delivery of the spoken text does not suggest anything last-minute. It was an inspired decision by Champs Hill to issue the recording as a two-disc set; yes, it’s a little more expensive than a single disc would have been – though not by much – but this presentation affords collectors the opportunity to choose how they experience Die schöne Magelone.

The tale of Peter and Magelone is somewhat archaic – and the series of events by which they are first parted and then reunited are rather improbable – but I’m glad that while Roger Vignoles has made his version of the story clear and accessible he’s made no attempt gratuitously to bring it “up to date”: the translation feels right. Williams relates the story in a relaxed style, investing his narration with just the right degree of expression. One would expect nothing less from an artist who is so expert at putting across a sung text. His spoken narration is quite closely recorded – arguably a bit too closely, because every time he takes a breath the sound is audible which isn’t the case when he sings. I wonder if it might have been preferable to record him in the same acoustic as when he sings.

Right from the start Roderick Williams really tells the story, whether he’s speaking or singing, and he engages the listener’s attention at all times. He sings the first song, ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut’ with a proud, heroic timbre but a little later his singing of ‘Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden’ is touching – at least until the more passionate concluding stanzas. This song is one of many in which he evidences a lovely musical line and seamless legato.

The tenderness of ‘Liebe kam aus fernen Landen’ is nicely conveyed. I think he gets the light eagerness just right in ‘Wie soll ich die Freude’ as he does the heady joy of ‘War ist dir’. One of the highlights of the cycle is his tender delivery of ‘Ruhe, Süßliebchen’. This is Brahms at his most easeful and Williams’ beautifully calibrated, even delivery is ideal for the song. By contrast ‘Verzweiflung’ requires singing that is strong, even angry. Williams achieves that but never once does his tone sound at all forced. The gentle melancholy of ‘Muss es eine Trennung geben’ offers another example of Williams’ exemplary care for the line. At the end of the cycle, when Peter and Magelone have been reunited to live happily ever after ‘Treue Liebe dauert lange’ is marvellously expressive.

Throughout these fifteen songs Roger Vignoles’ pianism is expert, whether it be in the torrential piano part of ‘Verzweiflung’ or in the gentler, lyrical songs. His partnership with Roderick Williams seems to be an ideal one in every respect.

The Vier Ernste Gesänge are an entirely different proposition. These were written by Brahms in the two month period when Clara Schumann was gravely ill following a severe stroke. Brahms knew her death was imminent and he poured out his feelings in these four masterly and deeply felt songs. The first three set verses from Ecclesiastes while the last one takes the celebrated passage from St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men….’ The second song, ‘Ich wandte mich, und sahe an alle’, is a deeply expressive piece and Roderick Williams matches that with the elevated expression he brings to the music. ‘O Tod, wie bitter bist du’ is Brahms at his most searching. Williams is terrific here and nowhere more so than in the second half of the song – ‘O Tod, wie wohl tust du dem Dürftigen’ – where his performance is dignified and deeply moving. He is ideally suited to the wonderful melancholy lyricism of the last song, ‘Wenn ich mit Menschen- und mit Engelzungen redete’; he’s especially fine in the last stanza. This is a memorable and eloquent account of these four profound songs.

You may not always want to listen to the narration of Die schöne Magelone; after all, it adds some 24 minutes to the performance. But Champs Hill Records have allowed listeners the choice and I think that’s ideal. The narration contextualises the songs, of course, but listeners who are familiar with the plot may prefer just to listen to the songs as a sequence. Whichever option you choose you’ll hear a very engaging performance and the marvellous account of Vier Ernste Gesänge is substantial bonus.

The recorded sound is excellent. So too is the documentation which includes an excellent essay by Daniel Jaffé. You also get the English narration in the booklet - though Roderick Williams’ exemplary diction means you shouldn’t need to refer to it - as well as the sung texts and translation. The one very slight blemish is that on the back of the jewel case – but not in the booklet – we are told that the Vier Ernste Gesänge are placed last on Disc 2; in fact these songs open the disc.

This is an admirable Brahms recital, made all the more attractive by the imaginative presentation of Die schöne Magelone.

John Quinn



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