LABELS: Champs Hill Records
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms
WORKS: Die schöne Magelone; Vier ernste gesänge
PERFORMER: Roderick Williams (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CHRCD108
The Beautiful Magelone – Brahms’s only song-cycle – is infrequently performed; and thus inevitably, and in the way of buses, two new recordings come along at once.
It’s a relatively early work, written between 1861 and 1869 and setting 15 poems from Ludwig Tieck’s The Romance of Magelone the Fair and Count Peter of Provence, itself based on a 15th-century French romance.
The tale tells how the noble warrior Peter elopes with his beloved Neapolitan princess Magelone, but they are separated by Muslim pirates; in captivity he falls in love with the Sultan’s daughter Sulima, and there are further adventures before he and Magelone are eventually reunited.
Brahms’s songs describe emotions felt by the individual characters at 15 points along the way. He himself didn’t feel the need for further material to provide a narrative cohesion that is otherwise lacking – though many others have.
In his recording with pianist Roger Vignoles, baritone Roderick Williams intersperses the songs with an English spoken narrative written by Vignoles himself. The result works well – but if you don’t want the narrative you can listen to just the second CD, which gives you the Lieder alone preceded by Brahms’s late and outstanding Four Serious Songs.
Williams delivers the narration naturally while proving once again to be a thoughtful exponent of sung text, an interpreter consistently attentive to its meanings. As an accompanist, Vignoles is every bit as engaged, his delicate and resourceful playing joining with Williams’s vocalism to point up significant detail.
Both artists show a strong feeling for tempo and rubato and the recording provides a sense of warmth and intimacy, offering a fine balance between the two performers.
In this respect Christian Gerhaher’s recording with his regular accompanist Gerold Huber is less successful: the piano sound is a shade dull and backward within an enclosed overall picture, while this one-disc version includes no linking material.
Even though there’s surprisingly little to choose between the two, Gerhaher’s is the richer and more rewarding voice in repertoire of which he is arguably today’s leading exponent. His acute sensitivity to text is matched by subtly inflected tone, helping him capture each of the piece’s fleeting moods.
Huber’s contribution is a touch more prosaic, while some of the tempo choices appear rather stolid. In the final analysis, and except in terms of sound quality, they’re pretty evenly matched.