United Kingdom Brahms: Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano), Ulrich Tukur (actor), Wigmore Hall, London, 15.7.2017. (VV)
Brahms – Die Schöne Magelone
This performance of Die Schöne Magelone at Wigmore Hall was one of those rare occasions one can immediately recognise as a watershed event. Gerhaher, Huber and Tukur will reprise the work on 17 July in Munich, the final of three stops on this year’s tour. Don’t miss them if you are within reach of the Bayerische Staatsoper. In the absence of the concert-hall experience, their recent CD (reviewed here) offers an outstanding recording.
What is Die Schöne Magelone? The question has been a matter of intense debate ever since its composition (1861-69). How it is answered is pivotal to its performance and reception.
Die Schöne Magelone (hereafter ‘Magelone’) is widely considered one of Brahms’s only two song cycles – if the Vier ernsten Gesänge (op. 121) satisfies that definition – out of a prodigious portfolio: he published c. 190 solo Lieder, in addition to duets and quartets, and that number does not even include his youthful unpublished compositions. We cannot be entirely certain that Brahms himself intended it as a narrative song cycle. However, the texts derive from a single literary source, Ludwig Tieck’s Die wundersame Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence (‘The Wondrous Love story of the Beautiful Magelone and of Count Peter of Provence’); and the sequence opens and closes in the same key. That is not the case for most of Brahms’s song collections, which he called ‘bouquets’ (‘Liedersträusse’).
Since its earliest days musicologists have pointed to the remarkably operatic quality of Magelone compared to most song collections. It is partly due to the combination of the popular Kunstlied tradition’s influence on Brahms and of his profound development of his scores, so that, in that iconic phrase from the late Eric Sams, ‘his words are always ready to turn into instrumental music’: the voice and accompaniment thus merge into an intense whole. Brahms told his friend and biographer Max Kalbeck that he regarded Magelone as ‘a kind of theatre’. He is also known to have felt that opera was more powerful when arias revealed the characters’ emotions while the recitatives carried the action. Magelone, whilst certainly not being an opera, is consistent with that attitude. However, its narrative thread is at best confusing to a listener unfamiliar with the story, a nineteenth-century take on a medieval romance. Brahms set to music fifteen of the eighteen poems which in Tieck’s work constitute introspective interludes: they express characters’ emotions, while action and landscape are found in the prose. Tieck himself had extracted sixteen of the poems and altered them for self-standing publication in Des Jünglings Liebe, depriving them of specific context and turning them into poetry about young love, but Brahms opted for the original version in all but one case (the song ‘Verzweiflung’ or ‘Despair’). His views towards the benefits of explicit narrative conflicted: to some who wanted to intersperse the Lieder with extracts from Tieck’s prose, he said the songs spoke for themselves; but he later expressed the wish to provide at least singers and players with some background.
How are these problems and ambiguities to be resolved for twenty-first century audiences? Gerhaher and Huber have done it in two ways: by commissioning Martin Walser, one of Germany’s best known authors, to write the connecting narrative; and by an outstandingly executed vision of the degree of closeness Magelone requires between the vocal and instrumental parts. The result is two-fold: story-telling at its best of the sequence as a whole; and the expressive power of each song shining through carefully polished facets. Gerhaher and Huber have collaborated for years, and their joint work has earned prestigious accolades. Tukur’s perceptive delivery of the spoken text (in Richard Stokes’ excellent English translation, which captures Walser’s gently ironic tone) may owe something also to his being a musician as well as an actor.
Gerhaher gives us a moving Count Peter, whose feelings are timeless and universal despite the medieval chivalric context. He teases out the meaning of every verse, his mastery of vocal technique enabling him to transmit his insightful reading of the work. The diction is exceptional across the register, the tone warm and the passaggi seamless. Every word is coloured with the appropriate shade of emotion, and the nuances of tempo exploited to effect by him and Huber.
Contrasting moods between and within each song are movingly conveyed. For example, in ‘Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden’, Huber in the piano introduction expresses the yearning and wistfulness of nascent passion, on which Gerhaher builds with the full range of emotions the text points to: the ardour and ecstasy, the fears and hopes, the resolve and surrender of love’s early phase. These sharp contrasts involve rapid shifts of keys, meter and tempo in the score, and an uncommon degree of accord and mutual adjustment by its interpreters. Even the tender ‘Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten’ is not devoid of a sudden change of tempo and keys, while the agitated ‘Verzweiflung’ which follows it contains a more tranquil section. In ‘Wie soll ich die Freude, die Wonne denn tragen?’, the anticipation and joy of love shine through – especially notable is Gehaher’s communication of its spiritual dimension, embedded in the recurring union of the words ‘love’ and ‘life’, and foreshadowed by the repetition of ‘soul’ in the first stanza. His interpretation of ‘Wie schnell verschwindet so Licht als Glanz’ and ‘Geliebter, wo zaudert dein irrender Fuß?’, respectively ‘sung’ by Magelone and Sulima is equally sensitive; amongst other things, his treatment of the word ‘Wüste’ – ‘desert’ – which occurs also in ‘Wie soll ich die Freude…’, underlines ways in which the latter and Magelone’s song (its alternative title is ‘Grief’) are specular opposites. Especially poignant is ‘Muß es eine Trennung Geben’, Peter’s lament, in a style reminiscent of Schubert, of the enforced separation from his beloved: Gerhaher moves from restrained pain to piercing grief, with the accompaniment’s sympathetic support. Throughout, Huber at the piano paints deftly the diverse imagery in Brahms’s score: a galloping horse, Peter’s lute, a storm, gentle waves…
The whole performance soars above the challenges set by Brahms, to reveal the force of his intimate portrayal of human experience.