BRAHMS: Die Schöne Magelone / Peter Schreier, ten; András Schiff, pno; Gerd Westphal, narr / Belvedere Edition 08001
Belvedere Edition is an indie label that apparently deals in reissues, like its cousin Brilliant Classics, and here they have given us a fascinating performance of Brahms’ song-cycle-with-narrator which is the closest he ever came to writing an opera. Considering the very high quality of the music, I’m surprised that no one has thought of orchestrating it and putting it on as a monodrama, except that I’m frightened to think what some idiot director nowadays would do with it.
My preferred version of this work was the 2013 recording by the great tenor Daniel Behle with pianist Sveinung Bjelland, an album that includes the piece two ways: first, just the songs without any narration (plus extra songs), then the songs with abridged narration on a second CD. This particular recording, originally made in 1997 and first issued by Belvedere in 2015, only includes the work with the narration, but all of Tieck’s prose is included. This, of course, can be heavy going for the non-German-speaking listener. This is one instance where I firmly believe that the narration should be given in the vernacular of each regional audience.
Those who have heard the Behle recording will know that his voice is much more beautiful than late-period Schreier, whose somewhat dry, sandpapery timbre became a bit drier with age. They will also know that Behle interpreted the songs quite well, but in this respect Schreier had the edge. He sang every song just a bit slower than Behle, yet within that time-frame one hears just that much more subtlety and “acting with the voice, and much to my surprise his voice retained the ability to “ring” in the upper register. Yes, he had a very small voice, but what he did with it is almost uncanny. Of course, the sonics helped him here: both he and narrator Gerd Westphal, who did an absolutely beautiful job, were absolutely swathed in reverb. But no matter: it’s the aesthetic result that matters, and here we have the classic argument of the less naturally attractive voice giving the deeper performance.
This is not in any way to demean Behle’s achievement. His recording is very fine, and by abridging the spoken narration he managed to fit his performance onto one CD, the second disc comprising just the songs without narration plus six extra Brahms lieder. Because of the slightly slower pace plus the complete narration, Schreier and company needed to spread it over two CDs to get it in, running 97 minutes (nearly 20 more than Behle).
The piano accompaniment is also a bit different. Schiff, as we all know, is primarily a very lyrical pianist who tries to make the piano “sing” in the manner of Alfred Cortot, though he doesn’t quite have Cortot’s warm, deep-in-the-keys touch. He caresses each lyric phrase lovingly without slipping into pathos or bathos. Due to his approach, plus the very nice, soft-grained approach to the narration, the whole work greets the ear lovingly, and Schreier enlivens most of his phrases with his customary rhythmic incisiveness.
Indeed, despite the length of the performance, I really enjoyed it because of its overall warmth of the narration and Schreier’s wonderfully detailed singing. This one is a gem.
—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley
Follow me on Twitter or Facebook @Artmusiclounge