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Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828)
Die schöne Müllerin (1823)
1. Das Wandern [2:39]
2. Wohin? [2:17]
3. Halt! [1:29]
4. Danksagung an den Bach [3:01]
5. Am Feierabend [2:43]
6. Der Neugierige [4:40]
7. Ungeduld [2:37]
8. Morgengruss [5:06]
9. Des Müllers Blumen [3:28]
10. Tränenregen [4:21]
11. Mein! [2:17]
12. Pause [5:22]
13. Mit dem grünen Lautenbande [1:54]
14. Der Jäger [1:10]
15. Eifersucht und Stolz [1:38]
16. Die liebe Farbe [4:10]
17. Die böse Farbe [2:15]
18. Trockne Blumen [3:31]
19. Der Müller und der Bach [4:34]
20. Des Baches Wiegenlied [6:57]
Elja Puukko (baritone), Risto Lauriala (piano)
Recorded in Esbo Church, 10th – 11th February, 2004
ALBA ABCD 193 [66:51]

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When receiving new recordings of frequently recorded standards already available in dozens of recommendable versions, it is tempting to ask: Do we really need yet another? In the good old days – the era of the 78s - one had to be happy with one recording of Die schöne Müllerin. In the 1930s it was Gerhard Hüsch who reigned supreme and not until after WW2 was there an alternative when HMV released the Aksel Schiøtz version. Today there could nominally be thirty, maybe forty, so the question is justified: Do we need a new one?

The answer is not a simple yes or no, rather "it depends". I imagine there must be several collectors who like me opens the jewel case and with a smile of anticipation put the brand new CD in the player, wondering: is it one for the reference shelf? However even a version that doesn’t compete with the best can be valuable and it’s only rarely that one finds a definite "best buy".

The present disc, issued by the small independent Finnish label Alba, probably introduces most international listeners to baritone Elja Puukko. Born in 1966 he isn’t quite a new-comer but he has had a long education, first studying church music and later singing where most of the great names in Finland have guided him. He made his debut at the Sibelius Academy in 1997 when he sang Schubert’s Winterreise. His everyday job is as a church musician in Esbo (Espoo), just outside Helsinki. He is partnered by pianist Risto Lauriala, who has made himself quite a name through a number of recordings for Naxos: Finnish music (Sibelius, Selim Palmgren and a mixed disc) but also Josef Suk and Bach transcriptions. His true metier, according to the booklet, seems to be Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert.

The first impression, through the four bars of piano introduction to Das Wandern, is a certain heaviness, not the playing in itself but rather a bass dominant recording. There is a tendency towards bombast in some places but that is in line with the overall concept which is dramatic and intense. Puukko has a clear voice, youthful in timbre with a dark kernel that makes his dramatic outbursts thrilling. In fortes he has an almost metallic brilliance; not unsuitable for a future Wotan. One of his teachers was Esa Ruuttunen – himself a wonderful Wotan at the Finnish National Opera. All this is finely demonstrated for example in Halt! (track 3) or the very energetic delivery of Ungeduld (track 7), where the sound of the piano is rather hard. He has the capacity to sing softly, inwardly with a very beautiful half-voice. Danksagung an den Bach (track 4) is a good example and so is Der Neugierige (track 6) where especially the middle section "O Bächlein meiner Liebe ..." is sincerely done. There is, though, some slightly hesitant intonation and the voice is not absolutely steady. It seems that he is short on breath. This is no prevailing problem, though. The last three songs (tracks 18 – 20) are heartfelt and finely nuanced and the long Des Baches Wiegenlied (track 20) shows him at his very best. It is exquisitely sung.

The overall impression is of a well-schooled singer with a beautiful and surprisingly powerful voice, which seems to be divided into two halves. Although he works hard on applying the right dynamics to each song – and succeeds very well in many cases – the remaining impression is of a slight monotony. He can’t quite produce the light and shade nor can he colour the voice sufficiently. There is also a certain rhythmic stodginess. Comparing him to Herrman Prey in a 1974 Philips recording, the older singer is lighter and more vivacious, mostly also at a swifter tempo. Puukko plays safe by choosing uncontroversal middle-of-the-road speeds.

The recording is good, apart from the bass heaviness I mentioned earlier, and the balance between singer and piano is fine. Having listened to this recording three times within a couple of days I have come to like his powerful and unfussy approach. It is, as I said, a thrilling voice that I will certainly want to hear again, not least as a corrective to some over-sophisticated interpretations.

Returning to the inevitable question: which recording should be a first choice, my answer is unhesitatingly Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on DG with Gerald Moore, recorded in the early 1970s. I can’t imagine the cycle being more enticingly sung with the marvellous lightness of touch that was always F-D’s hallmark, and his way of colouring the voice. It is of course backed up by the inimitable Gerald Moore. For a still more lyrical approach I can recommend a Caprice recording with Olle Persson and guitarist Mats Bergström. I actually haven’t heard the recording but I heard them live twice at about the time the recording was made, and the use of a guitar as a substitute for the piano invites the singer to be even more intimate, more conversational.

So here we have four different readings, including the Prey version which is a Papageno’s close-to-Nature approach.

I wouldn’t choose Elja Puukko’s recording every time I want to hear this wonderful song cycle. However in its own right and within the limitations Puukko has set himself, it is a fully valid interpretation.

Göran Forsling

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