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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin D.795 (1824)
Gerald Finley (baritone)
Julius Drake (piano)
rec. 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London
German texts and English translations included
HYPERION CDA68377 [67]

I’ve already heard and admired greatly the recordings by Gerald Finley and Julius Drake of Winterreise (review) and Schwanengesang (review). Consequently, I was delighted to receive their new recording of Die schöne Müllerin.

I must admit to a preference to hearing the three great Schubert song cycles – or collection, in the case of Schwanengesang - sung by a tenor, though I’m always ready to hear a lower voice, not least because the darker lower keys can bring their own rewards, as is the case here. I think Die schöne Müllerin particularly lends itself to a tenor voice if the tenor in question can convincingly suggest that we’re listening to the thoughts of an emotional young man. That can be slightly harder for a lower voice and whilst I think that Gerald Finley is very successful overall, I felt that in ‘Morgengruß’ I was listening not so much to a young man greeting the miller’s daughter as to a slightly older gentleman doffing his hat. I must hasten to add, though, that the performance of the song per se is very distinguished. Finley’s suave tone offers great pleasure and he shows impeccable technique.

Anyway, my mild reservation over that song is not significant. The rewards of this performance are great. For example, right at the start, in ‘Das Wandern’ Finley offers strong, manly singing. I was interested to hear him add a degree of ornamentation to the vocal line. I’ve not often heard this done in performances of Die schöne Müllerin; Finley is proportionate in his ornamentation so it’s not overdone and the result is attractive. Only in one or two other songs do we find him ornamenting the line.

Moving further on into the cycle, ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ is beautifully delivered by both singer and pianist. I was very taken with the performance of ‘Am Feierabend’. In particular, during the second stanza of the poem there’s a fine sense of story-telling. Then, the way the last two lines of the song are ‘placed’ by both Finley and Drake evidences the rapport between them; each takes his inspiration from the other.

‘Tränenregen’ is a deceptively simple song but it contains a trap for the unwary: how do the performers hold the listener’s attention through seven stanzas without undue exaggeration? There’s never the slightest danger that the listener’s attention will wander away from this particular performance. Both Schubert’s music and the way Finley and Drake delver it are examples of art concealing art. I loved their gently melancholic account of this lovely song.

After the exaltation of ‘Mein!’ – premature, as it turns out - the mood of the cycle gradually darkens. In fact, the very next song, ‘Pause’ is pivotal in that respect. Schubert’s music takes on a darker countenance as the song unfolds; Finley and Drake convey this subtle but definite change expertly. In ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ I like the perceptive light touch that Julius Drake imparts to the piano part. Finley, too, lightens his timbre with matching perception. Some singers spit out ‘Der Jäger’ at top speed in an effort to maximise the drama; in such cases the words aren’t always clear. Finley and Drake take the music quickly, of course, but their articulation is excellent and great clarity is achieved while the severity of the threat that the newcomer poses to the young miller is in no way diminished. Soon afterwards, we hear Finley inject just the requisite degree of regret and bitterness into ‘Die liebe Farbe’.

‘Trockne Blumen’ is a highlight of the entire performance. Finley displays an enviable control of line and his singing conveys withdrawn sadness. Julius Drake, with his perfect placement of the accompaniment, matches his singer at every stage and the result is that both artists offer an ideal example of ‘less is more’. In the last two stanzas Schubert, in a touch of genius, takes the music in a new direction. The young miller displays a degree of resolve, even defiance, and Finley is superb in this passage.

‘Der Müller und der Bach’ presents a wonderful contrast between the miller’s intense sadness and the easeful music with which the Brook offers reassurance. Finally, in ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, the young miller is folded into the comforting embrace of the Brook. Here, Finley sings with peerless legato and just the right degree of feeling while Drake’s pianism is subtle. It’s a compelling conclusion to a marvellous performance of Die schöne Müllerin.
Everything about this recording of Schubert’s great cycle is distinguished. Producer Mark Brown and engineer Ben Connellan have recorded the performers most sympathetically. Richard Wigmore brings his expert knowledge to the booklet essay. But, above all, it’s the two musicians on whom the focus falls. Gerald Finley’s singing is superb from start to finish. The sheer sound of his evenly-produced voice is a great pleasure in itself but it’s the perceptive way in which he uses the voice that sets the performance apart. He’s absolutely convincing in the Schubertian idiom and he seems to penetrate unerringly to the expressive heart of song after song. In Julius Drake he has a wonderfully supportive and perceptive partner. Between them, these two musicians offer an outstanding performance of the cycle which draws you in and doesn’t let you go.

I have many versions of Die schöne Müllerin in my collection. This one takes a place of honour on the shelves.

John Quinn

Previous review: Ralph Moore (June 2022)

Published: October 18, 2022

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