“The Songs of Brahms Vol. 5” = Die schöne Magelone – Christopher Maltman, bar./ Graham Johnson, p. – Hyperion

“The Songs of Brahms Vol. 5” = Die schöne Magelone, Op. 33 – Christopher Maltman, bar./ Graham Johnson, p. – Hyperion CDJ33125, 57:28 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Hyperion has been busy over the last 25 years recording the songs of Schubert, Strauss, Faure, Schumann, Liszt, Poulenc, and others, and only now in recent years turns its detailed and loving attention to the songs of Brahms. Graham Johnson, house pianist and genius behind the origins of this series, has produced book-length tomes detailing each song on every disc, many of which are published separately, and are invaluable as scholarly treatises from the standpoint of a master accompanist. With this fifth volume of Brahms, we reach the only real song cycle that the composer ever created, a rather diffuse, non-linear, and jagged set of tales from Ludwig Tieck’s Wondrous Love Story of the Beautiful Magelone and Count Peter of Provence. There is a narrative that is often given even on record with the songs, adding at least 20 minutes to the total timing, and yet adding little to the completeness of the story. Brahms himself had no desire to associate his music with the narrative, saying that his cycle had “categorically” nothing to do at all with the collection from which the texts were drawn, saying that he had simply set words to music.

Brahms, as most composers of the nineteenth century, had no attachment to the idea of “complete” cycles in a single performance; indeed, he preferred to have no more than three of his songs on any performance. Concerts were different then, and there were no recordings. Today we tend to feel cheated by the excisions, as if there is a hidden mystical message implicit in the full rendering of any cycle. And it is difficult to conceive of a chopped up Winterreise, just to take an obvious example. And the Magelone songs do not form a consistent and steady story, being instead a collection of love songs, and Brahms all but ignores the sequence of the narrative. There is also no indication that this cycle was ever performed in its entirety during the composer’s life time, so the current compendium is one more of modern convenience than essential dialog.

Christopher Maltman is a very good recitalist and makes a good case for projecting the emotional heart of these works, though it must be admitted that when compared to an artist like Fischer-Dieskau, one does detect something missing. Maltman’s baritone, while effective and thoroughly technical and proficient, lacks the last degree of luster, and one does miss the sort of satin sheen that someone like tenor Daniel Behle (on Capriccio) brings to the music. Nevertheless, Brahms was a rough and tumble composer, and shiny patinas are not always what we look for in his songs. Sometimes it takes tough love to bring out any love in this composer, and Maltman certainly succeeds, easily discerning the core of this so-called cycle. If anyone misses the fuller context of Tieck’s text, Hyperion’s superb booklet provides it.

—Steven Ritter

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