Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Die schöne Magelone: 15 Romanzen aus Ludwig Tiecks Magelone, Op 33 (1861-1869)
Tomas Kildišius (baritone), Ani Ter-Martirosyan (piano), Jannike Liebwerth (narrator)
rec. 2021, Partika-Saal, Robert Schumann Hochschule Düsseldorf, Germany
Booklet with commentary in English and German and libretto in German included
Genuin GEN23844 [80]

For this Hörspiel version of Die schöne Magelone, Jannike Liebwerth has recorded a spoken narration based on prose fragments from the original source text. Liebwerth gives the story dramatic impetus and clarifies the events that take place between the individual songs. Tomas Kildišius has an elegant, lyric baritone voice that expresses the characters’ personalities and the spectrum of their emotions: optimism, longing, sadness, despair, and delight. Ani Ter-Martirosyan is a supreme accompanist with a command of this repertoire. She not only supports Kildišius, but is an equal partner in telling the story. These artists have grown together interpretively to provide a compelling musical experience throughout.

Johannes Brahms chose Ludwig Tieck’s Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (1797) as the basis for his song cycle. The work, first performed by the baritone Julius Stockhausen with Brahms on piano, was a mixed success, as noted in the accompanying booklet. I would add that this cycle not only lacks a clear narrative, the subject matter is too extensive for a series of 15 songs sung by the same voice. It is difficult to know which character sings each song without a narrator.

The concision of these songs, between which the composer presented no connection, precludes character development. Time lapses, most spectacularly two years between ‘Muß es eine Trennung geben’ and ‘Sulima’, and location changes, including an episode redolent of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail in which Peter drifts out to sea and wakes up in the domain of a magnanimous Sultan who likes him too much to let him go, demand to be expanded upon to a degree that is not possible in Lieder. An opera librettist could have turned Tieck’s narrative into a compelling music drama, a genre into which Brahms never ventured.

It is easy to understand why the initial audiences were perplexed by this series of songs, and why Stockhausen appealed to Brahms for at least some narration between them. On the present recording, Liebwerth’s narration creates coherence, but many of the situations (e.g. Peter and Magelone having to elope because her father, the king of Naples, has arranged for her to be married to another man) are too complex to be addressed laconically by one singer. The tensions between father and daughter, and the young lovers’ resolve to flee the kingdom ought to be explored in a level of detail enabled only by a full-scale dramatic work. Peter’s two years in the Sultan’s kingdom, during which time he struggles to maintain fidelity to Magelone in the face of Sulima’s growing love for him, are mentioned in passing by the narrator and barely explored in the songs.

Given Brahms’s admiration for Franz Schubert, it is surprising that he did not employ a narrative similar to those which make Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Die Winterreise (1827) two of the most enduringly beloved of all song cycles. Schubert chose storylines without extraneous details that confuse audiences in the absence of long explanations.

This recording offers the most convincing case for Brahms’s Magelone because the musicianship and spoken text make it possible to savour this series of songs. Knowledge of Tieck, which Brahms assumed his audiences would have, enriches the listening experience. Hearing this disc may awaken the desire to explore not only Tieck, but more vocal compositions by Brahms.

Genuin has presented the disc in a jewel case with an attractive booklet that includes an introductory essay, as well as a full libretto. Certain details, especially the date and location of Brahms and Stockhausen’s premiere performance of Magelone, should have been in the commentary.

Daniel Floyd

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