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What made you decide to sing the Schöne Magelone cycle?
The Schöne Magelone is a very special work. I am not enthusiastic about every aspect of it, but it is very interesting music – complex and powerful. Gerold Huber and I started working on this cycle in 1992. I have always wanted to do it somehow, but differently, because the story told by Tieck is a bit conventional. It’s just a plain tale with not much to it. So I was always waiting for an opportunity to find a different story to Tieck's rather square, awkward and a bit embarrassing original.
Because it is too positive. It is about this count who has a wonderful life. He is going to be knighted, he meets this young princess, they are in love, get married and everything is so easy. I don’t like this idealised idea of nobility. Even the words are too neat and nice, which does not make for an interesting narrative in my opinion.
So how did you go about solving your dislike for the text?
For sure, the texts of the songs had to stay the same. They could not be changed. It was my wish, though, to change the prose. I met Martin Walser some years ago and he agreed to modify Tieck’s text: he added irony to it, using simpler words and giving the story a touch of humour. It is a novel, a re-told fairytale, which contains seventeen poems inserted between the prose, fifteen of which are set to music by Brahms. It is however the text between the songs that tells the story. The very strange thing is, if you have a novelistic song cycle, like Die Schöne Müllerin or Dichterliebe, normally the poems are able to tell the story themselves. Not in this case. They are like arias: they are not telling a story, but merely illustrating the feeling of a moment.
That is perhaps why the cycle was called a Liederoper (“Lieder opera”)...
Well, I think it is definitely the wrong expression. It is not an opera. I do not know who gave the work that title. I read about it and was absolutely astonished! Because Brahms was unable and unwilling, I think, to write anything like an opera. Brahms was absolutely non-operatic. This cycle has novelistic and epic, but not dramatic, aspects.
How is singing Brahms songs different to singing Lieder by other composers?
Brahms treated texts differently, compared to the way common Lieder-school composers like Schumann or Schubert did. Brahms always felt that fulfilling the musical form was more important than setting music to the rhetorical aspects of the pre-existing poem. He was not too keen on the singer giving additional nuances to specific words. Singing Brahms songs is not about pronouncing and interpreting words – it’s more about the music: you have to colour the words so they sound naturally. Therefore, it is easier to sing Brahms songs set to mediocre texts than it is to sing songs by Schumann, Schubert or even Mahler set to texts which you do not like. When you sing Brahms, you feel like an instrumentalist, or even like an instrument.
And that is a change compared to other kinds of Lieder-singing...
It is a big change. And it is a challenge, but it is wonderful. They provide a more powerful approach than Schumann or Schubert songs do. They need a very round and smooth and maybe darkened sound. It is a physical joy, a sensual delight to sing Brahms songs.
Why do you focus your career mainly on Lied recitals?
It was because I was fascinated by Lied that I became a singer! During my studies, I heard a Schumann song recital by Hermann Prey and I was captivated. I decided then: that's what I want to do.
Is your recital going to be very different from when you were last here?
Yes. It is going to be very special in that it is a novelistic evening. It is a real (German) story, told not by the singer, but by the narrator, which is seldom the case in the Lied repertoire.
As you have a third person involved, the narrator, is the relationship with your pianist different this time?
My pianist and I are practically married – as our [respective] wives say. He is like a brother for me and I like that. We have been working together for almost twenty-three years, and I am not yet eighty! However, in this case, it is a bit different, but not because of the narrator. It has to do with how difficult the piano part is. It is real chamber music. My instrument would be the viola with a few added words. Sometimes I have the feeling this cycle is like an early Brahms sonata or like a ballad with obligato singing, as if I were singing the continuo part. Brahms’s Schöne Magelone is probably the most ambitious work for a Lied pianist to play. He is the soloist!