Peter is a young man who has everything. He is rich, handsome, charming and athletic. Yet, as we learn early on in Brahms’ Die schöne Magelone, “nur lieben heißt leben” – life is meaningless without love. Peter being a knight, he must therefore ride forth in search of true love and glorious deeds. The composer’s only song cycle concluded Johannes Brahms Day, a programme of lieder recitals and lectures at De Doelen in Rotterdam. Based on a medieval French tale, Die schöne Magelone follows Count Peter of Provence as he woos and elopes with Princess Magelone of Naples. Being green and impulsive, Peter loses Magelone and manages to get kidnapped by Moorish pirates. Despair almost drives him into the arms of Princess Sulima, his captor’s daughter, but true love prevails and the lovers are reunited after a series of fortuitous plot twists. Rather than narrating the events, Ludwig Tieck’s poems explore the characters’ emotions at different stages in the story, which is read by a narrator.

With his towering height, baritone Michael Volle dominated the stage before he had sung a note. As he launched into “Keinen hat es noch gereut” (None has ever regretted), a paean to chivalric exploits, it was clear that we would be treated to an operatic rendition of Magelone, regarded by some as the closest thing Brahms ever wrote to an opera. Volle’s big voice is anchored to a rich, round bottom register, with an easy upper extension. It is tremendously thrilling when unleashed in full Wagnerian force, as when Peter resolves to make mincemeat of his enemies in “Traun! Bogen und Pfeil” (Verily! Bow and arrow). He can also scale it down to soft lyrical tones, as in the dreamy lullaby Peter sings to the weary Magelone, “Ruhe, Süßliebchen, im Schatten” (Rest, my love, in the shade).

A formidable actor on the operatic stage, Volle used the light and shade in his voice to bring the various characters to life, from the melancholy Peter, who almost buckles under the weight of his feelings, to the seductive Sulima beckoning him in the light-footed “Geliebter, wo zaudert” (My love, where tarries). Volle communicates emotions directly, while emphasising the text in subtle ways. Sometimes he loosened the legato slightly, creating a half-sung, half-declaimed effect, as when, in “Liebe kam aus fernen Landen” (Love came from a far-off land) Peter wrenchingly cries that he does not dare trust in love. At the end of “Muß es eine Trennung geben” (Must there be parting), Volle stressed the “b” in the last word, “ab”, couching it in a muted sob, distilling the secret heartbreak of the entire song into a single sound. It is this detailed attention to the words that makes him a great interpreter. Not surprisingly, one of the highlights of the performance was “Wie soll ich die Freude?” (How can I bear the joy), in which Peter is overcome by warring feelings of happiness and anxiety. Volle gave this emotionally complex song, modelled on the sonata form, the stature of an operatic scena.

At the piano, master Lieder accompanist Helmut Deutsch partnered him perfectly in dynamic nuance and emotional language, breathing with him all the way. He matched both Volle’s beauty of tone in lyrical passages and the singer’s dramatic forcefulness. Brilliantly translating Brahms’ rhythmic complexity into emotionally layered playing, his liquid runs sounding particularly exquisite, Deutsch also eloquently sketched more straightforward sound pictures such as a galloping horse, tempestuous waves or a beating heart.

Performances of this work cannot succeed without a vibrant narration. Bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, now retired from singing, was the animated narrator, his beautiful and authoritative voice equally skillful at trumpeting derring-do, evincing pathos and comic inflection. Storytelling and singing alternated seamlessly, the piano intros sometimes coming in over the narration. A minor quibble is that Quasthoff could have made more frequent eye contact with the audience, but his engaging personality was enough to nail their attention. When a mobile phone went off at the part where Sulima gives Peter the signal for their elopement, Quasthoff rolled his eyes and quipped: “That wasn’t it!”

As musically captivating as it is, Die schöne Magelone suffers from a lopsided narrative arc. It takes the first nine songs for Peter to meet and fall in love with Magelone, while their eventful separation and reunion are crammed into the last six. Brahms’ audiences would have been familiar with the story but modern ones need to hear the complete tale. Even the combined class acts of Volle, Deutsch and Quasthoff could not overcome the work’s narrative imbalance. However, they were the ideal trio to highlight its romantic beauty. As soon as Volle sang his last syllable the audience rose to its feet in an eruption of applause.