Brahms: Die schöne Magelone

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COMPOSERS: Brahms
LABELS: Hyperion
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms: Die schöne Magelone
WORKS: Die schöne Magelone
PERFORMER: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)

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Brahms’s only song-cycle is not well known, and there are reasons for that. Primarily, as accompanist Graham Johnson explains in his detailed notes, it’s a problem of form and content. Based on Ludwig Tieck’s Die schöne Magelone (1797), the narrative is interspersed with poems telling the story of the medieval knight Peter of Provence and his love for Magelone, daughter of the King of Naples, which is interrupted when he accidentally gets lost at sea and is dragged off, for some years, to serve the Moslem sultan as a slave.

It is possible to perform Brahms’s 15 songs – which together last for about an hour – together with a reading of Tieck’s narrative to hold the thing together, though it becomes a long evening. Better, perhaps, to sample them as here, with the songs on disc and a booklet containing the missing bits of the story.

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As ever, Christopher Maltman proves a persuasive exponent, singing not only (and mostly) the part of Peter, but also those of Magelone and Sulima, the sultan’s daughter, who also falls in love with him; his performance is musically scrupulous and interpretatively imaginative. So, too, is Johnson’s, though one or two technically difficult moments prove him fallible all the same. To my mind, few of the Magelone songs are among Brahms’s best, but as a whole the cycle is well worth getting to know. George Hall