Friday, 16 January 2015

Shining Armour - Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann and more

Roderick Williams
Roderick Williams
Iain Burnside, Johannes Brahms Shining Armour; Roderick Williams, Alison Rose, Victoria Newlyn, Iain Burnside; Milton Court Concert Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 14 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Brahms's Magelone cycle with striking new narrative about the relationship between the composer and Clara Schumann

Having, a
Clara Schumann
Clara Schumann
couple of years ago, heard baritone Roderick Williams performing Brahms's song cycle Die schone Magelone with an actor providing a spoken narration based on Ludwig Tieck's novella (see my review) it was fascinating to hear Williams performing it again at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court in an entirely different context. As part of the Guildhall School's Faculty Artist Series, Roderick Williams, soprano Alison Rose, pianist Iain Burnside (professor of collaborative piano at the school) and Victoria Newlyn (movement/drama tutor at the school) performed Iain  Burnside's Shining Armour on Wednesday 14 January 2015.

Victoria Newlyn
Victoria Newlyn
This wasn't quite a play, there was a bare platform with just a piano and four chairs. Iain Burnside and  Roderick Williams came on wearing normal concert dress lounge suites, whilst Victoria Newlyn looked modern but very demure. And Williams launched straight into the first song of the cycle Keinen had es noch gereut, singing in a very vital way with superb feel for both words and music in a performance which had great swagger but was surprisingly thoughtful.

Song over, Newlyn stood up and addressed us. She was billed as playing Clara Schumann and what we were presented with was a lecture by Clara Schumann but in the present day; Newlyn spoke in Clara Schumann's character but her talk was firmly based now. Between each song she would explain the plot details that were necessary to understand the songs; they come from Tieck's long narrative and Brahms set only the lyrical moments with some understanding of the surrounding plot needed. But she would then wander a little into more personal reminiscence.

The premise behind Burnside's text was the parallels between Tieck's romantic narrative and the awkward relationship (romantic and more) between Brahms and Clara Schumann (13 years Brahms's senior). Newyln as Clara pointed out the parallels early, commenting both on the hero, Peter's blondness and Brahms's blondness ('no-one could argue with his blondness'), that Peter was brave and Brahms brave 'on occasion'.

The parallels between Tieck's story and that of Brahms and Clara are not absolute ('Princesses are rarely 13 years older with eight children', and never have a job), but Tieck's romantic narrative with its unlikely co-incidences was one which Brahms took seriously and moved him ('Brahms cried so easily'). Whilst Brahms might have cast himself as the romantic hero, Clara was most certainly not a heroine and was able to look back with clarity and humour on what was obviously a very messy situation. She referred to the messiness of everyday life.


Whilst Williams was singing, Newlyn as Clara sat and listened intently as if the songs really meant something to her. When she spoke, even in the most serious bits, there was an element of humour present and often Burnside's text was very funny. But serious too. Newlyn was enormously poignant. When the hero Peter is separated from the heroine, Magalone, Newlyn as Clara talked of all the separation in her life, from Robert before they were married (when her father refused to let them wed), from Robert when he went mad, from her children who died young, from the youthful, lovely Brahams, from he older annoying bearded Brahms. Newlyn and Burnside's Clara was a woman whose soft flexible exterior hid a stronger, sharper personality.

The episode of the dusky maiden Sulima made Newlyn as Clara wonder whether Brahms experimented in such ways but then commented that Brahms had watched Robert Schumann die of syphilis.

As Brahms's song cycle reached its highly unlikely but romantic happy conclusion, Burnside's narrative pointed up the gap between the upbeat story and Brahms's music and mined this to counterpoint the more downbeat story of Clara and Brahms where nothing happened (we don't know why) and they ended up very distant.

Throughout the cycle Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside gave superb performances of the songs, always aware of Newlyn but rarely interacting. Williams brought a wonderful urgency and swagger to the big romantic moments, and was touching in the lyrical ones. He always sang with a glowing intensity, his performance very vital and arresting. There was a stunning sense of line, but the words were paramount. He and Burnside made Brahms's version of Tieck's chivalric world live in the music. Brahms wrote the piano part for himself to play, it is not uncomplicated and highly expressive. Burnside was wonderful as very much a partner to Williams, whether being gently elegant and melancholy or in the terrific storm in Verzweiflung.

The cycle has two songs for female protagonist, one for Magelone and one for Sulima. Sometimes they are sung by the baritone but here Alison Rose (a post-graduate student at the Guildhall School came on and sang them). At the end of Sulima's song, when it is apparent that Peter has abandoned her, Rose burst into tears and ran off the stage.


The final song is curiously downbeat, slow and beautiful but with an urgent ending, yet not quite the climax to a highly romantic saga. Newlyn as Clara followed it with a sad but bitter recital of the later history of separation between Clara and Brahms. Burnside started a Brahms intermezzo on the piano, she and Williams waltzed for a bit then as Williams paused to pay attention to the piano, Newlyn walked off. A poignant reflection of a troubled relationship.

Burnside was clearly by the parallels between the song cycle and the real life of Brahms and the Schumann's but I am not certain whether the present form of Shining Armour quit works, there was still a sense of words being fitted to the music. But that said, the performances from all concerned were superb. Williams was his familiar but not inconsiderable self, finely accompanied by Burnside and they, with Rose, gave us an incomparable performance of the song cycle. Newlyn as Clara was brilliant, her impersonation spot on and her story just as fascinating and absorbing. The result was thought provoking and certainly worth revival.
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