La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Die schöne Magelone

Testimony of a recital evening

Yvan Beuvard
Reading time
6 min.

Yvan Beuvard has been familiar with operatic and Lied repertoire for more than fifty years. Last July, he found himself lucky enough to attend the latest lied recital of Stéphane Degout and Marielou Jacquard, a performance of Brahms lied cycle Romanzen aus Ludwig Tiecks Magelone. Sit down with him, and follow the performance through his eyes and ears.

Only the Steinway, two music stands and, sideways, two tables and their chairs are lit up the rigging system. Five appear on stage, including the page-turner, who is as discreet and efficient as can be. The pianist Alain Planès takes his seat, followed by the latter. Baritone Stéphane Degout and mezzo-soprano Marielou Jacquard joins the stand on the right as Roger Germser approaches the microphone to narrate the story behind the cycle.

© Marc Ginot

The origin and outcome of this story told by Ludwig Tieck is not far from Montpellier, at Maguelone Cathedral. Pierre, son of the Count of Provence, a valiant knight, is tempted by adventure. He sets off to Naples where he takes part in a tournament organised by the king in honour of his daughter. Pierre and Maguelone fall in love. After exchanging poems and tender and passionate words, they offer each other jewellery before meeting in secret. Maguelone runs away with Pierre to escape the marriage agreed by her father. While Pierre is asleep, a raven steals the three rings he gifted, and he pursues the bird further and further. He endures a storm, is then taken captive by ‘corsairs’ and delivered to the Sultan of Babylon. His daughter, Sulima, falls in love with him, but Pierre manages to escape, to rejoin Maguelone, who has retired to the convent and the hospice for the destitute that she has founded, faithfully waiting for him.

Better than any other work, this cycle sums up Brahms as a whole, the crowning achievement of the art of the lied

Johannes Brahms’ Lied cycle clearly inscribes itself in the Romantic movement, that in its return to a fantastical Middle Ages had already produced a number of works based on tales of chivalry. There was enough material here to write an opera whose libretto and music would certainly have hold its own in comparison with Euryanthe or Lohengrin. The composer chose fifteen of the eighteen poems inserted into Tieck’s narrative, which they illustrate and punctuate. Each lied is a true lyrical tableau, of vast dimensions, in which the piano plays an important part.

© Marc Ginot

Better than any other work, this cycle sums up Brahms as a whole, the crowning achievement of the art of the lied, with the most innovative piano, most varied both in terms of performance modes and expression. The great cycles of Schubert and Schumann can be viewed as the forerunners of this Brahmsian blossoming. It is not anecdotal to recall that he accompanied Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau during his long career, even after retiring from the stage: at least five records testify to this, since 1952 (with none other than Weissenborn, Demus, Richter, Moore, and Barenboim!). Well known to Brahmsians and lied lovers alike, the work, which is often recorded, is rarely performed in concert in the French-speaking world. There are many reasons for this. If German singers – and some Anglo-Saxons – have appropriated it, before Stéphane Degout, unless I am mistaken, no one from our culture has dared to perform it in its entirety. The language, which is essential, is mastered spectacularly, so much so that there is nothing to differentiate his articulation from that of the best singers from across the Rhine. The level of difficulty is extreme: melodies of rare length, stretched around the transitional notes, requiring suppleness, an extraordinary length of breath, the widest palette of expression, from mezza voce to heroic projection, all that our wonderful singer now possesses. Another difficulty hindering its appropriation by the public lies in the narration of the story – often omitted on recordings – and in the fact that the baritone is entrusted with all 15 lieder.

Despite the dimension and length of the cycle, there is never a dull moment

This evening, the texts are entrusted to the narrator, and the singer abandons the texts entrusted by the poet to Maguelone (and to the troubadour, as in the evocation of Sulima) to a woman's voice. Thus the welcome interventions of Marielou Jacquard help stick to the text of the narration and vary the vocal production. Our mezzo – trained at the Hochschule für Musik Hanns Eisler in Berlin – is right at home with this repertoire, which she sings with great ease and total commitment. The voice is the ideal match for the lieder: flexible, with a rich timbre, sincere and perfectly pitched, i.e. without added effect. It is she who opens the piece, as the troubadour whose tale will inflame Pierre. "Liebe kam aus fernen Landen" [Love came from far-off lands] is a beautiful love song, tender and passionate, with incredible harmonic richness. Our mezzo performs with the utmost authentic expression. We will remember, in a very different style (we are in the Sultan's house), "Sulima", quivering, exhilarated with gentle, capricious love.

© Marc Ginot

Why don't we hear more from Alain Planès? After having cultivated the Romantic repertoire with panache for many years, tonight we discover a marvellous Brahmsian repertoire, which he does not seem to have recorded, one wonders why, because he excels in it. His fluid, highly nuanced, powerful and magical performance is ideally matched to the voice and makes all parts sing. On a grand piano, the dream partner for soloists.

Despite the dimension and length of the cycle, there is never a dull moment. The popular turn – reminiscent of a Volkslied, in the tradition of Schumann – blends perfectly with the dramatic lyricism of the score. Not a single melody leaves one indifferent and all of them deserve a mention. Arbitrarily, let us remember "Sind es Schmerzen" [Are these sorrows...], a marvellous love song, performed very legato, mezza-voce, a perfect expression of romanticism, lyrical, resolute, varied, with a contrasting range. The eighth, "Wir müssen uns trennen" [We must part], the piano becoming a lute, the next, "Ruhe Süssliebchen", where the lullaby is followed by the episode when the raven steals the rings, the tenth, "Verzeiflung" [Despair], devilishly tormented, evoking the storm... and the final one, "Treue Liebe dauert lange" [Faithful love lasts long], with a self-evident truth, whose first phrase, restrained, with an infinite breath, demands the baritone’s voice convey the colours of happiness. Maguelone's deep passion takes over before Pierre resumes the phrase, mezza-voce, ecstatic, emotional and radiant. Rarely has the emotion been so intense as in this lied (transformed into a duet).

© Marc Ginot

The hall was won over, and its warm acclaim resulted in a welcome encore, Die Nonne und der Ritter [The Nun and the Knight], after a poem by Eichendorff, a duet that opens Opus 28, an anticipation of sorts, of the sweeping fresco that unfolded this evening. This marvellous concert was an unforgettable moment, created by performers who were exemplary in both their commitment and expression.

Published previously on Forumopéra