Brahms Die schöne Magelone
John Chest (baritone), Marcelo Amaral (piano)
Alpha Classics ALPHA 431 57:23 mins
How to present Brahms’s only song cycle? Unlike Schubert’s Winterreise there’s no clear-cut narrative, and early on a tradition arose of embedding the 15 songs to texts drawn from Ludwig Tieck’s re-told tale of love and derring-do within a spoken scaffolding. Recent recordings by Christian Gerhaher and Roderick Williams add a contemporary twist, whilst Christopher Maltman’s 2014 account leaves the songs alone but interleaves some of Tieck’s context between the song translations in the booklet. John Chest simply allows the songs to speak for themselves without any background prompting. And perhaps with a Brahmsian imprimatur: the composer evidently preferred it that way.
Whatever, it’s a young man’s cycle (pace Brigitte Fassbaender among other female interpreters), and Chest is in the full bloom of youth. Things get off to a suitably rollicking start, Marcelo Amaral saddling up the piano for a not-quite gallop, Chest, his German attentively enunciated, setting out his stall with heroic declamatory zeal. The headstrong optimism of ‘Traun!’ radiates virile conviction, and the long arc of ‘Sind es Schmerzen’ unfolds a sensitively shaped trajectory. As the cycle unfolds, however, Chest’s sense of line proves a double-edged sword, sometimes short-changing a more detailed nuancing. The ear craves a little more variety, and just occasionally the slight flattening of a note obtrudes. But the operatic heft of ‘Wie soll ich die Freude’ whips up a tortured storm in singer and pianist alike; ‘Verzweiflung’ generates a churning vortex of despair; while ‘Wie schnell verschwindet’ is lovingly cast as a Schubertian refugee refashioned in Brahms’s image.