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Brahms – Die schone Magelone Op 33
Wigmore Hall – 15 January 2006
Pre-concert Talk by Hilary Finch “Fair Fantasies of Love”

Matthias Goerne – baritone
Elizabeth Leonskaja – piano
Peter Mussbach - narrator

The nearest Brahms came to writing a song cycle is his setting of 15 poems taken from Ludwig Tieck's 1797 novella   “The Wondrous Love Story of the Beautiful Magelone and Peter, the Count of Provence”.    The story was not a new one, but Tieck, who was a specialist in fairy stories and medieval folklore, re-told it adding an original poem to round off each chapter.   The book was a huge success, and when Brahms started to set the poems to music, almost everyone would have recognised them and placed them in context.

The poems do not form part of the narrative, but are simply an expression of the feelings of one of various characters at that point in the tale. (My own irreverent comparison would be to the numbers that punctuate musicals – “I feel pretty” or “I could have danced all night” tell you nothing about Shakespeare's or Shaw's plot unless you are already familiar with it.)  Fashions change and memories are short, the book dropped out of currency, and the connecting thread of the   “song cycle” was lost.  

It was Julius Stockhausen, the baritone for whom the songs written, who had an aversion to audiences who sat with noses buried in their programmes rather than giving the performance their undivided attention, who suggested the addition of a narration and, with notable exceptions (Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau and Brigitte Fassbender) the subsequent balance of opinion has followed suit.

This background derives from Hilary Finch's pre-concert talk, which led her on to discuss and play extracts illustrating the stylistic directions that such a narration might take.      Firstly we heard Vanessa Redgrave, the only English-speaking recording, in cosy, bedtime story manner – perhaps a little condescending for repeated listening?   Next, Inge Borkh's unmistakably animated approach, turning her narrative into a small drama and, last but not least a completely straight-forward reading from Bruno Ganz.

These considerations were especially pertinent on the occasion. The plan, thwarted by ill health, had been for Sir Ian Holm to give the narration in English, perhaps with shades of his venerable hobbit voice.  Matthias Goerne had reservations about matching his own interpretation with that of an unknown narrator, and opted for the safe recourse of a tried and tested German colleague, with an English translation printed in the programme.

The chosen speaker was Peter Mussbach , General and Artistic Director of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin. Seated at a desk, he delivered his text in a fairly deadpan manner with little to enliven the words or hold the attention of his audience, and there was a noticeable increase in throat clearing and page rustling during his last few segments.     On the positive side, his quiet delivery allowed the piano entries to come in over his voice and give an additional sense of unity.

The music is notoriously difficult for both singer and pianist. The songs are long, with twists and turns of pace and mood, difficult intervals and key shifts. The singer must by turn represent a wandering minstrel, Peter the eager young hero, his beloved Magalone , and the siren like song of the exotic Sulima.  Matthias Goerne has all the virtuosity to make light of these difficulties and his tone constantly matched the sentiment of his words. Whilst the singer is the voice of the protagonists the piano paints the scenery, resplendent court pageantry, the rustle of a grassy meadow, resounding, foaming waves, a ray of sunshine in the twilight, and Elizabeth Leonskaja matched up well to the demands of a score of dazzling complexity. Perhaps both singer and pianist were at their best in the tender lullaby Ruhe, sussliebchen, with its gentle rocking melody – a schone Liebesphantasien ” indeed and a memorable evening for the capacity audience.

© Serena Fenwick

Photo: Sasha Gusov