Christopher Maltman Sings Brahms' Magelone
The scholar-pianist Graham Johnson and Hyperion CD are engaged in recording the complete songs and vocal music of Brahms. This outstanding project follows upon their recordings of the complete songs of other composers, particularly Schubert, but including Schumann, Faure, Strauss and Liszt as well. This CD, the fifth in the Brahms series, features the British baritone Christopher Maltman with Johnson at the piano performing Brahms' only song cycle, "Die Schone Magelone", opus 33, a large, passionately romantic work which is rarely heard.
Together with beautiful music and performances, the Hyperion-Johnson CDs feature extensive book-length liner notes. Because of the unfamiliarity of "Magelone" op. 33 it is best to begin this review with these notes. Brahms set 15 poems from a novel called "The Wondrous Love story of the Beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence", by Ludwig Tieck (1775 --1853). Tieck was a popular and romantic writer at the time, and Brahms loved his novel. Tieck's book is a medieval romance involving a young prince coming of age, wandering, dark forests, jousting, finding and losing love, hazardous sea voyages, three love rings and more. Tieck's story is unintelligible from the 15 poems Brahms set. When the work is performed, a narrator sometimes is used, either in German or English, to fill in the gaps in the story. Brahms tolerated but did not care for this practice and it is not used on this CD. The result is a recording of 15 "Magelone" songs, named for the heroine, which present a disjointed story as a set.
The liner notes also suggest that Brahms did not view the "Magelone" songs as a connected cycle but preferred to think of them as 15 separate love songs which could be performed individually or in small groups at recitals. In other words, Brahms tried to avoid thinking of "Magelone" as similar to Schubert's "Winterreise" for example. The practice has continued of performing "Magelone", when it is performed at all as a set, as is the case on this CD. The liner notes include short summaries of the story line of Tieck's book to allow the interested listener to put the songs in context.
Another difficulty with the "Magelone" songs besides the story line lies in the songs themselves. The 15 songs tend to be long and elaborate, difficult to sing and particularly difficult in the varied character of the piano writing. The piano part challenges pianists and is more on the order of a chamber piano work than of art songs. The songs are large and almost operatic in character. Unlike, again, "Winterreise" the "Magelone" songs lack the sort of intimacy that makes songs suitable for home performance or for small recitals. They are virtuosic and demanding. Pianists, singers and audiences have generally shied away from them. In addition, two of the 15 songs, no. 11 and 13 are written for a woman -- in fact for two different women. Thus, the Magelone set on occasion uses two singers, but the general practice, for economy if for nothing else, if for a single singer to perform the entire set, as is done on this CD.
With all these issues, Maltman and Johnson offer a passionately convincing performance of these songs which, uncharacteristically for Brahms, wear their hearts on their sleeves. Maltman is a renowned performer who has recorded the Schubert cycles with Johnson and who appears frequently in opera. His voice and musicality are both lyrical and strong. He possesses a wide vocal range which is necessary for this demanding score. I thought Maltman was especially effective in the upper part of his register which gets much taxing use in these songs.Johnson plays his difficult piano part with skill and conviction. He and Maltman understand and work well with one another. Maltman sings the most famous of the "Magelone" songs, "Rest My Sweetheart", no. 9 with tenderness and smoothness. Other beautifully-sung works from the set include "Are these sorrows, are these joys?" (no. 3), "We must Part" (a song Peter sings to his lute when he plans to elope with Magelone, no. 8), and the climactic, concluding song "True Love Abides" (no. 15). Then as now, composers and audiences generally preferred happy endings.
The liner notes include texts and translations of each song together with detailed musical analysis. I found it best to read the booklet first to avoid distraction when listening. With the performances and the booklet, this CD offers an excellent opportunity for serious listeners to get to know Brahms' "Magelone" songs or to deepen one's love for them. I have other CDs of "Magelone", but I came to enjoy the set much more with Maltman's and Johnson's performance and with the detailed booklet.
Total Time: 57:28