Superb Brahms singing undermined by narration at Collaborative Works Festival

Fri Sep 07, 2018 at 1:12 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tyler Duncan performed Brahms’ “Die schöne Magelone” Thursday night at Ganz Hall. Photo: Elliot Mandel

There is not a whole lot of music by Johannes Brahms that lies neglected. But there is some— his underrated organ music and secular choral works are both worthy of excavation.

And then there is Die schöne Magelone. Brahms’s song cycle was the sole work on the middle program of the Collaborative Works Festival Thursday night at Ganz Hall. Tyler Duncan was the vocal soloist, partnered with pianist Erika Switzer.

Brahms was prolific in his song output but The Fair Magelone remains his least performed work for solo voice. An early work, Op. 33 predates the German Requiem, and is Brahms’s only song cycle. The text sets 15 of the 18 poems embedded in Ludwig Tieck’s 1797 novel, which relates the quasi-medieval romance between Peter, a knight from Provence, and the beautiful princess, Magelone.

The narrative is largely told from the viewpoint of the male protagonist. As in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise, knight Peter goes through a wide range of moods and much emotional turbulence, alternating between confident bravado and bleak despair. Unlike the Schubert cycles, Brahms’ Magelone ends on a happy note with the lovers united in romantic bliss or something like it.

Brahms’s Magelone songs are varied, mutable and attractive without being quite as indelible as his best lieder—let alone that of Schubert. About a third of the 15 songs are spacious in scale, running to five minutes or more, which bestows a more expansive overall sensibility than the jumpy, headlong dramatic momentum of Schubert’s cycles. There is a sense in Magelone of a young, gifted composer still in the process of finding his artistic voice.

Debate continues on whether Op. 33 was intended as a song cycle at all. The full title of the work—15 Romanzen aus ‘Die schöne Magelone’—for some indicates a less unified structure as does the episodic libretto, with a narrative that is nonlinear and often baffling. As Nicholas Phan points out in his program note, the cycle is often performed in German-speaking countries—where it is more frequently heard—with narration from Tieck’s novel in between the songs.

That was the approach taken by Collaborative Arts Institute in Thursday night’s Magelone presentation. And while the musical values were first-class throughout the evening, Brahms’s music was undone by the coequal narrative element, which too often wound up undermining the performance rather than illuminating it.

Tyler Duncan’s career has been on a steadily rising trajectory and the Canadian baritone more than lived up to advance expectations. Possessed of a refined, burnished voice with flexibility and ample strength in reserve, Duncan is a natural lieder exponent. He robustly conveyed Peter’s heroic character in the opening song, “Keinen hat es noch gereut,” and brought swaggering bravado to the ensuing “Traun! Bogen und Pfeil” and defiant power to “Verzweiflung.”

Yet Duncan was just as convincing in the more introspective settings. He deftly explored the shifting moods of “Wir mussen uns trennen” and deployed an elegant legato line in “Sind es Schmerzen, sind es Freuden,” segueing smoothly into the ardency of the second section. In the longest and deepest lied of the cycle, Duncan brought unerring sensitivity to “Ruhe, Sussliebchen, im Schatten” in which Peter sings his love to sleep, with hushed, beautifully rendered vocalism.

Unfortunately, every time Duncan’s vocalism lifted one to the heights, we immediately came crashing back down to mundane earth with the ceaseless narration of the rather silly and uninteresting tale. Though capably read by actress McKinley Carter, the storybook selections were often longer than the songs and the “Are you sitting comfortably?” interruptions after each lied were a consistent drag on the performance, destroying any sense of mounting dramatic and musical momentum.

Narration in Brahms’s cycle may be standard in Europe, but just because something is done in Germany doesn’t necessarily make it a good idea. There are a multitude of scenarios that don’t make much sense in the repertory, but we don’t require an interlocutor to enter the opera stage to illume the backstory of Trovatore or Act 1 of Götterdämmerung. Finally, if Brahms wanted interpolated narration in between every Magelone song—which seems unlikely—surely he would have indicated as much in the score.

This seems like one of those ideas that looked intriguing on paper but stubbornly failed to work in performance. Ironically, it wound up making a stronger case for Magelone as an integral cycle sans narration than anything else.

The keyboard part of Magelone is notoriously difficult in its demands. Erica Switzer handled all the virtuosic challenges fluently while keeping a skillful balance and never swamping Duncan in Ganz Hall’s very live acoustic. The pianist was more convincing in the florid, brilliant songs than the interior ones where her playing felt fractionally impatient and would have benefited from greater delicacy and a more nuanced touch.

The Collaborative Works Festival concludes 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ruth Page Theater, 1016 N. Dearborn. The program include Schoenberg’s Book of the Hanging Gardens and Janacek’s Diary of One Who Disappeared.

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