Die Schöne Magelone

Die schöne Magelone, Op.33

Matthias Goerne (baritone) & Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano) with Peter Mussbach (narrator)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 15 January, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Brahms’s “Die schöne Magelone” remains little known despite the advocacy of Fischer-Dieskau and Richter.

This may have something to do with the fairytale storyline – naïve virgin Protestant nobleman Peter wins tournament, elopes with naïve virgin Princess Magelone but leaves her in a forest in a fit of sexual panic (which involves a raven!). She runs off distractedly and ends up with some shepherds; he ends up on a boat and becomes the prisoner of a Sultan whose daughter Sulima falls for him. Peter eventually escapes; he and Magelone are reunited and live happily ever after. The songs are almost all Peter’s and he does a lot of emoting but little story-telling, so there is an optional part for a narrator.

This addition makes the cycle last for around 80 minutes, which is long considering there are only fifteen songs, which tend to mix bouncy rhythmic sections with yearning lyrical lines, but never produce a truly memorable idea.

The recital wasn’t helped by the withdrawal of Sir Ian Holm as narrator; his replacement, Peter Mussbach, while a distinguished director and producer, is not an actor. He had to use a microphone and his downbeat monotone delivery was drab. I don’t know if Holm was to have spoken in German or English, but English from a fine actor would have helped the proceedings. There were further problems in that, on occasions, the narration continued as the piano introduction started and Mussbach was rarely in rhythm. At one point he was still speaking as Goerne entered.

On the musical side, both artists were superb. Leonskaja avoided the temptation to overuse the pedals; she made the numerous – and often predictable – rhythmic patterns dance and her dynamic and tonal shading were exceptional. Goerne’s voice is now very dark and plush and he too was able to draw on a wide range of shading and dynamics. In the second song there was superb declamation and in “So willst du des Armen” there was some gorgeous use of mezza voce – as there was in “Muss es eine Trennung geben?” where the use of head voice from p to ppp was exceptional. However, there were some problems with clarity caused by a slight fuzziness in tone that is beginning to become a problem for Goerne.

So a mixed success, overall, and also to note that there was but one member of bar-staff on duty for a full house prior to the concert.

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