07 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms – DIE SCHÖNE MAGELONE (Daniel Behle, tenor; Sveinung Bjelland, piano; Capriccio C 5203)

CD REVIEW: Johannes Brahms - DIE SCHÖNE MAGELONE (Capriccio C 5203)

JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Lieder including Romanzen aus ‘Die schönen Magelone,’ Op. 33Daniel Behle, tenor; Sveinung Bjelland, piano; Hans-Jürgen Schatz, narrator (Wundersame Liebesgeschichte der schönen Magelone und des Grafen Peter von Provence) [Recorded in Radiostudio Zürich, Switzerland, 4 – 6 March 2013; Capriccio C 5203; 2CD, 140:51; Available from Amazon, ClassicsOnline, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

​It has sometimes seemed in the past decade that the music of Johannes Brahms has been in danger of going out of fashion. The four Symphonies, once the cornerstones of many orchestras’ repertories, are now heard with less frequency, and the chamber music is encountered only slightly more regularly. Ein Deutsches Requiem and the potent Vier ernste Gesänge cling to currency, but the greater portion of the composer’s vocal music goes unheard. In comparison with Berlioz and Wagner, Brahms was a quiet genius, one who was aware of his own significance as a musical innovator but pursued his career with greater humility. The novelty of Brahms’s genius lies in his enlargement rather than a concerted subversion of the traditions that he inherited from his music ancestors. Careful analysis of his music suggests that, for Brahms, discarding conventions was not necessarily indicative of ingenuity: sometimes those who color outside of the lines are simply messy. In his Lieder, Brahms took up the examples of Beethoven, Schubert, and his beloved Schumann and enriched them with his own mastery of harmony and concentrated dramatic expression. At their best, Brahms’s Lieder possess the formal symmetry of Beethoven’s finest songs, the tuneful fecundity of Schubert, and the rhapsodic wildness of Schumann. Above all, Brahms’s Lieder are a gift to singers but sadly one that too few of them are willing to accept. Tenor Daniel Behle’s Capriccio recording of the fifteen Romances from Ludwig Tieck’s Die schöne Magelone and other Lieder not only welcomes the bequest but goes a step further by presenting the Romances both as individual works and in the broader context of Tieck’s narrative, provided by noted German actor Hans-Jürgen Schatz. Any recording of this music is a windfall received with gratitude, but this recording is an especial gift to the listener who thinks Brahms a capable but uninspired composer of Lieder.

The concept of coupling Brahms’s Romances from Die schöne Magelone with readings that establish the sentimental atmosphere from which the songs emerge is intriguing, and it is to the credit of everyone involved with this recording that the experiment succeeds so thoroughly. Renowned for an extensive career in German television, Ms. Schatz has a mellifluous voice ​that is virtually ideal for narration. In this performance, he immerses himself in the text, revealing both the presiding ethos of the narrative and specific details of interpretation—the forest and the trees, as it were—without resorting to overwrought melodrama. Still, Brahms’s music is the raison d’être for this release, and it was clever programming on Capriccio’s part to offer Brahms’s Romances from Die schöne Magelone on separate discs, with and without the linking narration. In both the Romances and six other Lieder, pianist Sveinung Bjelland is a distinguished interpreter of Brahms’s music in his own right and a fitting partner for Mr. Behle. Brahms’s melodic strands are coarser than Schubert’s and Schumann’s, and approaching Die schöne Magelone, Brahms’s sole self-contained Lieder cycle, as though it is an extension of Die schöne Müllerin or Frauenliebe und -leben imperils realization of the singular impact of Brahms’s creativity. In truth, many performances—or, more appropriately, many of the few performances—of Die schöne Magelone are dull, but this performance by Mr. Behle and Mr. Bjelland engages the imagination throughout its duration. In essence, Brahms’s accompaniments synthesize Schubert’s close support of the vocal line with Schumann’s greater independence, exercising considerable freedom of thematic development within formal boundaries. In his robust but flexible playing, Mr. Bjelland finds the rowdiness beneath the polished surfaces of Brahms’s music. Crucially, he clearly understands that performances need not be prissy in order to be poetic. So fine is Mr. Bjelland’s playing, technically and interpretively, that the most artfully-crafted Lieder on this disc seem like artlessly organic modes of expression.

The unaffected expressivity of these performances is also owed in no small part to Mr. Behle’s ardent, youthful singing. Still in the early years of his international career, he has the musical world at his feet, but he is a singer who conquers with charm rather than brute force. There is a streak of titanium in the voice, giving strength but not heaviness, but the primary impression made by Mr. Behle’s singing is one of athletic lyricism in the tradition of Peter Anders and Fritz Wunderlich. His account of ‘Meine Liebe ist grü​n​​’ (Op. 63, No. 5) shimmers with the freshness of the fragrance of lilac blooms on the twilit air, and the sense of wonder that floods his singing of ‘Juchhe!’ (Op. 6, No. 4) elucidates the text’s celebration of the awe-inspiring beauty of the earth. The brooding nocturnal atmosphere of Goethe’s text for ‘Dä​​mmrung senkte sich von oben’ (Op. 59, No. 1) is evoked with subtle shading of the timbre, Mr. Behle darkening his vowels without impacting his patrician phrasing. ‘​Liebestreu’ (identified in Capriccio’s liner notes as Op. 6, No. 3, but actually Op. 3, No. 1*) introduces elements of unrestrained anguish, which Mr. Behle explores poignantly without weakening the intellectual asperity of his interpretation. The beautiful ‘An die Tauben’ (Op. 63, No. 4) is an impassioned depiction of lovesickness: the healthiness of Mr. Behle’s tone contrasts meaningfully with the increasing misery of the text, and the liquidity of his phrasing suffuses the song with a touching sense of yearning. The singer’s tone makes the climax of ‘Von waldbekränzten Höhe’ (Op. 57, No. 1) a cry of despair but an exceptionally secure, attractive one. Throughout the performances on this disc, Mr. Behle sings with near-complete control of his voice, the few moments of stress resulting from his refusal to sidestep difficulties. He uses words as springboards for emotional propulsion as well as anyone singing in German today and, indeed, better most singers of past generations. His way with Brahms’s Lieder ushers him into the exalted company of Heinrich Schlusnus, Alexander Kipnis, and Aksel Schiøtz.

The Romanzen from Die schöne Magelone present a plethora of challenges to both singer and pianist. Though conceived and presented as a coherent cycle, the individual songs cover a great deal of philosophical territory. Unlike a cycle such as Schubert’s Winterreise, in which there is at least a thread of discernible narrative linearity, Die schöne Magelone is a work of ambiguous sentiments that flurry and fade. Past performances have intimated that Brahms’s invention in Die schöne Magelone was inconsistent, but Mr. Behle’s and Mr. Bjelland’s performance reveals a splendidly even level of musical achievement. The opening song, ‘Keinen hat es noch gereut,’ is sung magically by Mr. Behle, the compact harmonies focusing attention on the subtleties of the vocal line. The wry wit of ‘Traun! Bogen und Pfeil sind gut für den Feind’ is highlighted by Mr. Bjelland’s playing of the darting piano part, and both singer and pianist submit themselves to the ambivalence of ‘Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden.’ ‘Liebe kam aus fernen Landen’ and ‘So willst du des Armen?’ are two of Brahms’s most plaintively introverted songs, and Mr. Behle sings them with intensity that does not spill over into saccharine whimpering. The barely-contained excitement of ‘Wie soll ich die Freude, die Wonne denn tragen?’ ripples through Mr. Behle’s and Mr. Bjelland’s performance, their limning of the enthusiasm in Brahms’s music echoing the poet’s fervor. There is a beguiling hint of irony in ‘War es dir, dem diese Lippen bebten,’ brought to the surface by Mr. Behle’s straightforward performance. Perhaps because of the implications of a musician lamenting a forced separation from his beloved lute, there is particular verve in both tenor’s and pianist’s treatment of ‘Wir müssen uns trennen.’ Another gem of the cycle is ‘Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten,’ and the serenity of the music is ideally served by Mr. Behle’s composed vocalism. Each of the last six songs in Die schöne Magelone is a small-scale masterpiece, beginning with the turbulent ‘So tünet denn, schäumende Wellen’ (‘Verzweiflung’), the titular despair expressed in this performance not through moping but in tones of scorn. As dictated by the text, Mr. Behle’s singing of ‘Wie schnell verschwindet so Licht als Glanz’ inhabits a world obscured by shadows, and the heartbreak of ‘Muß es eine Trennung geben’ throbs in his euphonious tones. Complementing his colleague’s sweetly vinous negotiation of the vocal line, Mr. Bjelland pertinently divulges the ‘wandering feet’ that tread through the accompaniment in ‘Geliebter, wo zaudert dein irrender Fuß?’ Undertones of regret and resolve impart a deeply moving vulnerability in the final pair of songs, ‘Wie froh und frisch mein Sinn sich hebt’ and ‘Treue Liebe dauert lange,’ and Mr. Behle and Mr. Bjelland bring the cycle to a close with a genuine sense of catharsis. In their hands, Die schöne Magelone is truly an unified entity rather than merely a sequence of vaguely homologous songs.

Daniel Behle is clearly a superb singer, but this recording of Die schöne Magelone and a selection of six representative Lieder also confirms his ascendancy as a noteworthy crusader for the preservation of the endangered Art of Song and as a exemplary interpreter of the music of Johannes Brahms. Singing of this quality is no trick of the recording studio: it can only be achieved when voice, technique, intellect, and insight are firing on all cylinders and operating in absolute balance. Sveinung Bjelland’s top-tier playing completes the musical experience, enabling these Lieder to uplift the spirit of the listener. The real winner here is Brahms, however: hopefully, this recording will prompt more young singers and pianists to explore Brahms’s Lieder, but, having heard these performances, it is understandable if they do not feel up to the task.


*In the ClassicsOnline listing for this release, track 4 of the first disc is identified as ‘Spanisches Lied,’ Op. 6, No. 1. This is also incorrect, as the song on offer is, in fact, ‘Liebestreu,’ Op. 3, No. 1, the text of which begins with the line ‘O versenk’, o versenk’ dein Leid, mein Kind, in die See.’