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BRAHMS: Die Schöne Magelone

CD Button Gerhaher; Huber, piano. No text, English translation only. Sony 88985413122

Recordings Gerhaher Brahms Cover 1017
Critics Choice Button 1015

DIE SCHÖNE MAGELONE  is unique in Brahms’s music. Not quite a song cycle, not quite a collection of songs for browsing and reassembling, it’s never been a staple of the repertoire, but it’s having a small renaissance lately among baritones. Roderick Williams and Christopher Maltman have signed on, and Christian Gerhaher’s new recording adds to a
distinguished discography. The fifteen songs don’t make much sense on their own. They are resting points in a larger journey, like the songs in Twelfth Night, and about half of the CD recordings offer narration to set the storybook context. (Williams did the honors himself; Gerhaher’s recording comes with narration on the European version of this CD, but not on the American one.) The capstone in the recorded history of the piece has long been Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in two live performances, one with Sviatoslav Richter from Aldeburgh and another with Gerald Moore from Salzburg, but there isn’t a strong performance tradition for the songs. Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber have a persuasive way of doing them.

The swashbuckling story is full of horseback journeys. For Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, there’s relentless galloping; for Fischer-Dieskau and Richter, there’s prancing. For Gerhaher and Huber there’s something more genial and amiable, more of a trot. These artists never stretch to extremes. Gerhaher is the master of contained excitement, rather than theatrics, without a hint of bravado. Instead, pieces like the sixth song have a confiding tone. There’s a delicate, mournful tread in their performance of the eleventh song, which Gerhaher sings like a folk song and Huber colors with complications. In the seventh song (something of a left-hand étude for the pianist, and Huber is up to it), Gerhaher gives the illusion of gliding over the music. Everywhere, he offers a cushioned sound; in the eighth song this produces the striking idea of optimism without exuberance. Fischer-Dieskau and Moore were the masters of floating an entire song like a suspended sentence; here, as in the ninth song, the artists instead give us something like a gently throbbing heart. The piano writing is frequently ungrateful for the pianist, but Huber (even in something like the rhapsody of the tenth song) is a match for his singer; neither ever sounds strained. Huber is favored by a warm acoustic. 

The art direction of the text booklet is a disaster. There is no German text, only a translation printed in giant paragraphs rather than in Ludwig Tieck’s poetic stanzas. This recording was made in 2014; presumably it took the art directors three years to screw up this badly.  —William R. Braun



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