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Franz SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D 795 (Op. 25) (1823)
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Michael Gees (piano)
rec. Galaxy Studios, Mol, Belgium, 6-8 October 2007
Sung texts and English and French translations enclosed
Experience Classicsonline

Hard on the heels on Andreas Post and Tatjana Dravenau (see review) comes another tenor version of Schubert’s indestructible Die schöne Müllerin with Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees. While Post is quite early in his career, Prégardien has been active for some two decades as a recording artist and his discography is extensive, to say the least. He recorded Die schöne Müllerin in 1991 with Andreas Steier (fortepiano), a reading that was awarded the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis in 1993 and when he now returns to this work he has radically changed his approach.
I have sampled a few songs from the earlier issue and what we hear there is a youthful, fluent lyric tenor, quite straight-forward and the accompaniments are accordingly. The mature Prégardien – he turned 50 in 2006 – has mellowed a little and there are some signs of strain in the upper region of the voice but by and large he has preserved all the best qualities of twenty years ago while, as far as could judge from the snippets I heard, he has deepened his insight.
Tempos are generally moderate, giving him ample opportunities to mould the phrases expressively and his readings are considered and emanating from intimate knowledge of the text. There is nothing sensational or showy about his readings, they just seem natural, unaffected but committed. The ebb and flow of the music is well catered for and the dynamic range is – well, natural and unaffected.
What makes this reading stand out and – to some listeners at least – may be controversial is the question of embellishment. It is well documented that singers also in Schubert’s time tended to decorate the music with grace-notes and even modification of notes. Sometimes, at least in the case of Johann Michael Vogl, maybe the most important champion of Schubert’s songs, this was due to the ageing singer’s fallible ability but performance practice was that there was a certain amount of freedom for the singer - to improvise, not actually rewrite what was written. Prégardien decorates the song-line mostly discriminatingly and primarily in strophic songs where he avoids monotony by varying the line slightly from stanza to stanza. It is tastefully done and for listeners who know the songs more or less by heart it gives added pleasure to wait for the next deviation from the ’original’. It is mainly a question of inserted grace-notes and discreet decorations of phrases but sometimes he also changes the melody considerably and even opts for final notes of a phrase an octave lower than written. Jan Kobow, whose recording has been my favourite version since I reviewed it a couple of years ago, also decorates, but much less than Prégardien, who moreover makes quite heavy ritardandi, mostly at the end of songs and rarely overindulgent but I can imagine listeners being irritated. Michael Gees, who throughout the cycle is a wonderfully responsive accompanist, also inserts some extra notes once in a while and sometimes plays a phrase out of his own invention. It is all tastefully done and I ended up with a sense of having heard the cycle with new ears. All the songs were there and they sounded as I was used to but just as with a newly-restored old painting where the removal of centuries of discoloured varnish makes the picture that much more vivid, so Prégardien’s and Gees’s restoration work reveals hitherto unseen tinges.
My admiration for Jan Kobow’s recording is undiminished but Christoph Prégardien now enters my shortlist of really important versions of Die schöne Müllerin. The SACD recording is first class and allows the listener to appreciate every nuance of the reading. Walther Dürr’s liner notes are excellent.
A deeply satisfying reading of Die schöne Müllerin, made special by the quite extensive decorations of the song-line.
Göran Forsling


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