Brahms: Die schöne Magelone (plus readings from Ludwig Tieck’s novel)

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Teldec Das Alte Werk
WORKS: Die schöne Magelone (plus readings from Ludwig Tieck’s novel)
PERFORMER: Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Andreas Staier (fortepiano), Vanessa Redgrave (speaker)
CATALOGUE NO: 8573-80916-2
Since the poems are lyric interludes in Ludwig Tieck’s chevaleresque fantasy-novel, how much of the actual story does the audience need to know? By the 1880s, when Tieck was no longer current literature, even Brahms thought ‘a few introductory words’ wouldn’t come amiss. Schreier and Prégardien, like Brigitte Fassbaender, opt to link the songs with scene-setting readings from the novel. Unlike Fassbaender, they draft in a separate speaker, and Schreier’s extracts are longer. So he takes two CDs, not one – and avoids Fassbaender’s irritating voice-overs during the songs’ preludes and postludes. It’s preferable, moreover, to have the cycle sung by a tenor. But isn’t the narration unnecessary? People read booklet notes and opera synopses all the time: a 500-word outline is all we need to ‘place’ these lyrics imaginatively. That said, Schreier, on peak form, turns in really beautiful performances of the most self-indulgent (and thus most revealing) of all Brahms’s Lieder, his teenage literary enthusiasms illuminating his broken engagement to Agathe von Siebold. The piano tone is a bit constricted, though.

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Non-German-speakers may in any case find the narration alienating. But the new Teldec version, with a shorter narration in English (exquisitely if rather soporifically delivered by Vanessa Redgrave) doesn’t seem the solution either. Logically, shouldn’t the songs be translated too? This is ‘period’ Brahms, with Andreas Staier accompanying on an 1847 Streicher fortepiano. Brahms owned a Streicher instrument, but it was 20 years younger and a genuine grand piano. Still, the fortepiano works well: the accompaniments are very clear-textured, devoid of any hint of customary Brahmsian heaviness (which may simply be bad old tradition), and the balance is ideal, allowing Prégardien to stress the youthfulness of the cycle’s underlying impulses. Calum MacDonald