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Friday, 15 November 2013

Brahms's Die schöne Magelone with Roderick Williams

Roderick Williams
Brahms wrote a significant number of lieder but only one song cycle, Die schöne Magelone. Even that cycle doesn't have the cohesiveness of say Schumann's Dichterliebe or Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin. Instead Brahms set 15 songs (romances) from Ludwig Tieck's novella Wundersame Liebesgeschicte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter aus der Provence (The Wondrous Love Story of the Beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence). Tieck's story has 18 songs embedded in the text, each in a different chapter, so that the songs are about the character's states of mind rather than progressing any narrative. This means that Brahms's song cycle has difficulty standing on its own. Lacking familiarity with Tieck's original (which was popular in the 19th century), the audience needs to be helped along. For his performance of Brahms's song cycle for Temple Song at Temple Church on Thursday 14 November, baritone Roderick Williams was joined not only by pianist Julius Drake but by the actor Alex Jennings. Jennings read extracts from Tieck's story between the songs, giving us a clear dramatic context for the songs.

Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) was clearly very taken with the romance of Count Peter's story.  He read it as a 14 year old on summer holidays (with his host's 13 year old daughter). There was more than one telling of the story and Ludwig Tieck's version (written 1796 and revised in 1812) only came to Brahms's attention in 1861 when it delighted him. Also at that time Brahms was performing song recitals (including DichterliebeDie schöne Müllerin and Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte) with the baritone Julius Stockhausen. It was for Stockhausen that Brahms wrote the songs between1861 and 1869.


The songs are generally in standard forms, such as ternary (ABA), expanded ternary (ABABA) or varied strophic (repeated verses varied each time). But that is to belie their complexity, Brahms's writing is expansive (operatic even) and he combines this with a highly wrought piano part (his publisher rejected the songs because the piano part was too demanding). Perhaps because the songs were specifically written for Brahms himself to play, the piano parts resemble more his instrumental chamber music than his other songs.

The story is one full of romance and unlikely co-incidence, a style which seems rather preposterous to us today but was highly popular at the time (It has elements in common with such stories as Planche's libretto for Weber's opera Oberon). The main protagonist of the story is Count Peter who goes on picaresque adventures, meets Magelone falls in love, ends up captured by pirates and meets Sulima who falls in love with him, he eventually flees and meets Magelone again by accident. All ends happily. Most of the songs are Peter's but not all, both Magelone and Sulima have songs too and the cycle opens with a song sung by a minstrel.

In Keine has es not gereut (No man yet has rued) the minstrel urges Peter on to adventures abroad, and we heard the rhythm of the horse in Julius Drake's accompaniment on the piano. Roderick Williams sang with a firm baritone and a candid, direct style. Phrases were well shaped in lovely, full tones combined with superb words and a clear sense of telling a story.


Traun! Bogen und Pfeil (In truth! bow and arrow) sees Peter celebrating the joys of combat to come. Whilst Brahms's vocal line is rather folk-influenced, he combines it with a remarkably complex piano part. Both Drake and Williams rendered the song with lively vitality and infectious enthusiasm.

We next encounter Peter in love in Sind es Schmerzen (Are these sorrows) which Brahms conveys with beautiful simplicity. Williams sang with great frankness, and a superbly luxuriously furnished line. His tone was profoundly beautiful, but combined with a great feeling for the words. And in the final two stanzas, some vivid drama. There is nothing specifically operatic about the song, but Brahms was working on a far larger scale than usual, filling the songs with amazing detail.

Liebe kam aus fernen Landen (Love came from far-off lands) comes after Peter has given his first ring to Magelone. Again the vocal line is beautifully simple, with interesting changes to the various strophic verses. There was something rather Schumann-esque about the song, particularly the way Williams sang it with very intent passion and an open frankness. The influence of Schumann seemed to continue in So wilst du des Armen (So you'll kindly pity a poor man) sung after Peter gives a second ring to Magelone, and again we had a sense of passion but also a demonstration of Williams' strong feeling for the narrative sense of the songs, as he vividly told us a story.

In the lyrical romance Wie soll ich die Freude (How then shall I bear the joy) Peter's anticipation of his final meeting with Magelone can barely be contained. Again the song seems simple, but isn't and Brahms introduces some wonderful touches in the piano creating a very rich texture. In many of the songs I was struck by the contrast between the rather direct vocal line and the richness of the piano accompaniment, here very finely realised by Drake. In Wie soll ich die Freude Brahms is following the emotional journey of the words, bringing a tone of lovely autumnal melancholy in the later stanzas which was only dispelled at the end. Williams' gave a highly thoughtful performance with a very vivid final stanza.

War es dir (Was it for you) sees Peter and Magelone together at last, and Peter expresses his passion though it is quite a sophisticated passion with very varied expression in the music. There was a wonderful intensity in Williams' performance, which carried him through the songs and between them. After each song Jennings continued the narrative but you were still aware of Williams being very intent.

Plans for Peter and Magelone's flight from her disapproving father mean that Peter must leave his lute behind. In Wir müssen uns trennen  (We must part) he sings with it for one last time. Williams sang with a lovely honeyed tone, creating again a rich autumnal glow. But then Peter puts down the lute and picks up his weapons and Williams gave us an intensely vivid account of this, before the lovely opening mood concluded the song. On their flight, Peter sings the lullaby Ruhe, Süssliebchen (Rest, my sweetheart). Drake and Williams brought out the magical texture of Brahms' song here, with quiet intensity and great beauty.

The next bit of the plot requires complete suspension of disbelief, at the end of it Peter has lost the rings he has given to Magelone, left her alone in the forest and is on a boat lost in the open sea. Naturally he sings of his Verzeiflung (Despair) in a song where Brahms combines an amazing piano part consisting of sheathes of notes (brilliantly played by Drake) with a more direct vocal line, vividly sung by Williams.

Left alone Magelone flees and ends up sheltering with a shepherd's family and sits and spins. Wie schnell verschwindet (How soon they vanish) is her song, which Williams sang with a lovely burnished tone and fine grained melancholy, creating a haunting ballad.

Captured by pirates, Peter laments the loss of Magelone in Muss es eine Trennung geben (Must there be a parting). Over a lovely flowing and rippling piano, Williams brought out the almost barcarolle like lilt in the vocal line, imbued with a profound sense of melancholy. Whilst captured, Peter has caught the eye of Suleima who sings of her happiness and excitement in Sulima. A delightful and delicate song, vividly full of barely contained excitement.

Peter flees and whilst at sea sings Wie froh und frisch (How briskly and brightly). A song which Williams made all passionate anticipation and infectious joy.  Finally Peter and Magelone are re-united and song of their love in Treue Liebe dauert lange (True love abides) in a glorious summation.

Having Alex Jennings narrating made great narrative sense of the cycle, and his narrations were vividly involving but sufficiently discreet that he never took over the drama. Instead there was a sense that there were two protagonists, Jennings and Williams. Williams rendered each song superbly and was finely involving with strongly verbal narrative sense. Julius Drake was a superb partner, creating some magical textures in Brahms' amazing piano parts, rendering the songs a striking whole.

This was an absorbing evening and though Brahms was in two minds about whether any narrative was needed, we were treated to a finely crafted whole which made complete sense of the musical narrative.

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