“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin...”

Roderick Williams © Benjamin Eagolvea
Roderick Williams
© Benjamin Eagolvea

So Julia Somerville, looking extremely comfortable in a pale yellow armchair, with a beautiful table and reading lamp beside her, began a rather unusual recital by Roderick Williams and Roger Vignoles of Brahms’ only song cycle, Die Schöne Magelone. Composed early in his career, and taking eight years to complete, Brahms sets 15 songs taken from Ludwig Tieck’s novella about the love affair between the Neapolitan Princess Magelone and Peter, a young swashbuckling French count. The songs, unlike Schumann’s Dichterliebe, are not fleeting poetic thoughts; neither do they tell the story of the fantastical fairytale, but rather they are extracts from it – songs that the characters literally sing during the tale. This was where the narrator, the BBC’s Julia Somerville, came in. Each of the songs was separated by a section of the fairytale itself, relating the action, introducing the characters and putting each of the songs in context. I thought this worked rather well – the cycle would have felt rather disjointed and meaningless were the meat of the story removed and the cycle performed as a stand-alone work.

The dramatic tale inspired some of Brahms’ most extravagantly inventive music. The melodies tumble along, with eerie sound effect, galloping rhythms, a beautifully simple lullaby and some truly fantastical setting of the German text. Brahms has a reputation for being a rather serious, earnest composer, but this cycle contains comic serenades, introspective meditations, declarations of love, dance-like folk numbers, all accompanied by some incredibly imaginative writing for the piano, dramatically and sensitively performed by Vignoles.

Due to the nature of the text, Williams was required to depict several of the characters we meet in the fairytale throughout the evening. I was completely taken in by his portrayal of the young, impetuous knight, Peter. His courtship of the Princess Magelone was displayed in the heartfelt and all-encompassing rush of youth and he was alternately brave, defiant, lovesick and heartbroken, and the audience were swept along in a torrent of passion. Williams has such ease on the stage – his stance is always relaxed, and his posture accurately reflecting the mood of each song. We were provided with comprehensive translations of all the songs, but these were hardly required, as the emotional and textural content was plainly displayed. Unfortunately I felt that the Hall itself slightly let the side down. It is a modern room, and as the evening went on it was obvious that it had been designed for instrumental music rather than vocal; the piano rang beautifully through the hall, but the dramatic climaxes were somewhat disappointing from Williams. Having heard him in the Wigmore Hall last week, where his mellifluous tones easily filled the space, I know that this is nothing to do with the power of his voice or his technical ability, and I suspect the acoustical design of the space was to blame on this occasion.

There is not space in this article to review each individual song, as much as I would like to, as all are masterpieces in their own right. They are substantial, multi-sectional compositions, which made up a concert of over an hour’s length. Brahms himself called them “Romanzen” rather than mere songs, and although most are strophic, he rarely sets them thus. Each is related by key to its neighbours on a journey that begins and ends in E flat. The highlight of the set is the lullaby which Peter sings to Magelone as she sleeps in the forest glade midway through their journey. “Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten der grünen, dämmernden Nacht” (“Rest, my love, in the shade of green darkening night”), he sings, and Williams employed a heartbreakingly soft and light tone; the whole audience was hanging on his every word. As part of the Brahms Unwrapped chamber music series, I thought this was an entrancing rendering of a rarely performed work, showcasing the musical diversity of both Brahms and tonight’s interpreters.