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Franz Peter SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, song cycle (D 795)
Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor; Joanna Leach, square piano (Clementi, 1832)
Recorded at Whatley House, Somerset, UK, 1995 DDD
ATHENE ATH CD6 [63:55]

Comparison: Christoph Prégardien, Andreas Staier (DHM, 1991)

"The instrument used for this recording enables us to hear Schubert's song cycle as music lovers of the period could have heard it". These are the words of Andrew Lancaster, who restored the square piano used in this recording. But this statement is both confusing and incorrect. "Music lovers of the time" refers to the time of Schubert, one has to assume. But the piano was built after Schubert's death. And in Schubert's time song cycles were never sung in their entirety. 'Die schöne Müllerin' was sung as such for the first time by Julius Stockhausen in Vienna in 1856.

And who could have heard it? Not the music lovers of Vienna: it is rather unlikely that instruments by Clementi were used on a regular basis there. But the music lovers in Britain in Schubert's time couldn't have heard it either. Schubert was almost completely neglected in Britain during his life. It was in 1831 when the singer Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient sang his 'Erlkönig' in London. It was published by the London publisher Wessel & Co which had printed 38 songs by Schubert by 1839. But the interest in any music by Schubert came only in the second half of the 19th century, and then mainly in his orchestral and chamber music.

It seems therefore that the historical justification for using this instrument for this recording is non-existent. We should therefore take it for what it is: just an interpretation of one of Schubert's most famous song cycles. It has therefore to compete with other recordings. There are a lot of them, and I have used one of the best with fortepiano as comparison.

Right at the start I have to say that there is no real competition here. In all respects Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier are ahead of Richard Edgar-Wilson and Joanna Leach. It helps that Christoph Prégardien is a native German speaker, which makes his pronunciation completely natural. Nevertheless, Edgar-Wilson does pretty well in this department. Even though one can hear that he isn't German, there are only few instances where his pronunciation is really off the mark (for instance "ewig" in 'Ungeduld').

One problem here is a lack of variety in the interpretation of the songs. The tempi are uniformly slowish, and that slowness is often unnatural, for example in the very first song, 'Das Wandern'. There is also a lack in contrast within songs, for example between the first and second stanza of 'Am Feierabend' or the first six stanzas and the last in 'Tränenregen'. 'Ungeduld' doesn't sound very joyful and the jubilant character of 'Mein' hardly comes across.

Another problem is the fortepiano. An instrument with English action is not the ideal medium for Schubert's music. The tone of such an instrument does sustain longer than an instrument with Viennese action, like the one Andreas Staier uses. This has considerable effect in those passages where the piano part contains repeating chords, symbolising death bells ('Die böse Farbe') or representing a funeral march ('Trockne Blumen'). The descant of the square piano lacks clarity, which has a negative effect in particular in the last line of the stanzas of 'Mit dem grünen Lautenbande'.

In Schubert’s songs the piano part plays an important role in commenting on the text. In this recording its execution is too pale really to contribute to the interpretation of the songs’ content.

On the whole Richard Edgar-Wilson rightly uses a minimum of vibrato. But in forte passages he starts to wobble and his voice sounds stressed. His articulation is admirable, but in really fast passages, like 'Der Jäger', where there is no breathing space at all, he has to pay so much attention to keeping the words audible that there is no room for any differentiation between them.

This recording is made in a very intimate atmosphere which has its charms. But if one wants to have a really good interpretation of Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ other recordings are preferable, in particular the one by Prégardien and Staier.

Johan van Veen

Athene catalogue

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