Imaginative and Illuminating Presentation of Die schöne Magelone in Oxford

31/10/2015

Oxford Lieder Festival – Brahms: Roderick Williams (baritone), Alison Rose (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano), Victoria Newlyn (narrator): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 27.10.2015. (CR)

Brahms: Die schöne Magelone, Op. 33

Brahms’s only song cycle, Die schöne Magelone (1861-2) has never gained a secure foothold in the song repertoire or in concert programming, perhaps because of its lack of a clearly delineated narrative across its fifteen songs, thought that has never stopped Schwanengesang or Schumann’s cycles from becoming some of the best-loved works in the lieder repertory.

Iain Burnside’s answer here was not just to ‘fill in the gaps’ between each song with some of the literary background of this old romance (as some performances do) but also to draw out a putative biographical dimension from the cycle by devising a series of reflections, as though from Clara Schumann’s perspective, to explain the significance of the songs in terms of Brahms’s complicated experience and feelings for her. Rather than directly using any extant documentary evidence from Clara, these reflections were told in retrospect, and not even in the authentic voice of the 19th century, but in a contemporary, ironic fashion, sending up Brahms’s neo-mediaeval chivalric tale, and discussing the apparent psycho-sexual motivations in quite graphic terms.

Initially that jarred with the earnestness and sincerity of the composer’s settings – even if they, as with much of his music, serve as a protective, defensive barrier warding off a truly confessional or autobiographical account of his life, such as we might be able to read off more clearly from the oeuvre of Beethoven or Schubert for example. But as the cycle progressed, this verbal sequence took on a logic and consistency of its own, usefully highlighting both the narrative of the beautiful Magelone, and Brahms’s own biography. It was sympathetically and humorously realised by Victoria Newlyn, assisting in making the alternation of words and music into a sort of domesticated, private drama, quite in contrast to Wagner’s notion of the music drama. (Wagner also came under wry attack here for the overweening chromaticisms of his romantic retelling of Tristan and Isolde). And, since in Art (and perhaps only there), the possibilities of life become actual, at the end of the cycle Newlyn and Roderick Williams came together to dance a few steps whilst Burnside played some strains from the famous Waltz in A flat major from the Opus 39 set, making touchingly and apparently real for a few moments something which Brahms was held back from pursuing in his own lifetime.

Roderick Williams sang the cycle not in the role of Brahms but straight as it were, except for the two songs which call for a soprano, taken here by Alison Rose. Williams’s interpretation was unfailingly responsive and lyrical, capturing the discrete emotional world of each song, and registering particular emphases and shifts within them as necessary, as shown best in the longer, more discursive numbers such as Wie soll ich die Freude and Wir müssen uns trennen. That certainly did not preclude passion, urgency, or ecstasy as evidenced compellingly in Verzweiflung or Wie froh und frisch. With only two songs to sing, it is perhaps unfair to generalise about Rose’s performance, but this was somewhat more unyielding. Although in the form of a ballad, there could have been room for more of a let-up in the delivery and tone of Wie schnell verschwindet, and she sounded slightly dry and stretched at the beginning of Sulima. But otherwise the vocal quality of her singing was pleasant to hear.

Consistent throughout the cycle was Burnside’s dramatic and propulsive performance at the piano. As in all the best song recitals, his playing was no mere accompaniment, but a fundamental part of the musical texture and the description of incident and emotion, without side-lining the singer. He set the mood and pace for each song which gave the singers confidence to engage with at a similar level. All in all, an imaginative and illuminating evening.

Curtis Rogers

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