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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D.795
Christian Gerhaher (baritone), Gerold Huber (piano)
Recorded 7-11 February 2003 in Studio 2 of the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Munich
ARTE NOVA 82876 53172 2 [66:01]


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It may seem unfair to start with the pianist, but as a pianist myself I want to say at once that I think Huber’s playing is quite wonderful. Take no. 2, Wohin? There is such transparency to the rippling 16th-notes, such evenness, together with such sensitivity to the harmonic changes, so those sinking progressions first heard at "Ich weiss nicht, wie mir wurde" really register. The opening of Ungeduld, which in some hands can sound a mess, is clear for once, and the agitation, at a fairly broad tempo, is the more effective for it. He is alive to every marking, every harmonic shift, and reacts imaginatively to the many strophic songs. In Des Baches Wiegenlied the gentle rocking figure which accompanies the song throughout actually comes to sound like distant horns as the singer evokes the "Jagdhorn" in verse 3. And he collaborates perfectly with the singer as well as playing beautifully on his own account.

Is this all a preface to saying that the singer is not on the same level? Fortunately not. Christian Gerhaher has evidently thought a lot about the texts, on which he adds a note of his own in the booklet. For years it was a truism that Wilhelm Müller wasn’t worth much as a poet, but this is the second time recently I’ve encountered a revisionist view in print, and Gerhaher reminds us that Heinrich Heine rated Müller very highly. In order for us to appreciate better the poem and the dramatic plot he has had the complete cycle printed in the booklet, including the prologue, epilogue and three other poems not set by Schubert. Unfortunately he perhaps didn’t realise that Ars Nova intended to print the texts without translations (only the notes are translated) and my German is certainly nowhere within reach of understanding them unaided.

It is not surprising, then, that his singing always gives due attention to the words. His rather hearty way with the first song led me to wonder if this wasn’t going to be an over-heavy interpretation, but perhaps he is misleading us deliberately, for by the end it is his intimate, almost whispered style of delivery which leaves an abiding impression. He, no less than his pianist, finds a wide variety of expression in the strophic songs. It is a more interventionist approach than Aksel Schiøtz’s classic performance (not strictly comparable as that was a tenor version), but always musically so, somewhat in the Fischer-Dieskau tradition. A comparison of a few of the songs with the most recent recording by Andreas Schmidt and Rudolf Jansen found the latter, both singer and pianist, a little penny-plain alongside the more varied approach of Gerhaher and Huber. Possibly Schmidt’s voice is in itself the more beautiful instrument but in imaginative and expressive phrasing Gerhaher surpasses him. If you have strong feeling over tempi, I should warn you that Gerhaher’s and Huber’s search for expression leads them to tempi which are generally slightly below the norm – Schmidt and Jansen take just 61’ 26". I didn’t personally find any of the slower speeds overdone.

There have been a good many fine recordings of this cycle over the years; this splendidly engineered recording can join them, without consideration of price; but you will need to get translations from somewhere if you don’t speak German.

Christopher Howell

 



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