Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin D795 (1823)
1. Das Wandern [2:27]
2. Wohin? [2:03]
3. Halt! [1:27]
4. Danksagung an den Bach [2:42]
5. Am Feierabend [2:19]
6. Der Neugierige [4:05]
7. Ungeduld [2:27]
8. Morgengruss [4:23]
9. Des Müllers Blumen [2:56]
10. Tränenregen [4:20]
11. Mein! [2:15]
12. Pause [5:27]
13. Mit dem grünen Lautenbande [1:59]
14. Der Jäger [1:04]
15. Eifersucht und Stolz [1:35]
16. Die liebe Farbe [5:02]
17. Die böse Farbe [2:02]
18. Trockne Blumen [4:19]
19. Der Müller und der Bach [5:02]
20. Des Baches Wiegenlied [7:27]
James Gilchrist (tenor); Anna Tilbrook (piano)
rec. 27-28 April 2009, Champs Hill, Sussex. DDD
German texts and English translations included

James Gilchrist has made a number of notable recordings in the last few years. He’s featured in several of the recordings from the Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, invariably to good effect. In the art-song repertoire he’s attracted particular attention for his recordings of English song, including a fine recital of songs by Finzi. Now, in company with his regular recital partner, Anna Tilbrook, he offers us his interpretation of one of the pinnacles of the lieder repertoire.

The booklet contains an extended essay by Richard Morrison but there’s also a shorter note by Gilchrist himself, in which he says this: “Schubert and [Wilhelm] Müller have here created a work of huge power and depth, where we explore this tragedy [of the young man] with great empathy and pity, but also with our hearts full of despair at our own inability to alter the relentless logic of fate.” 
There’s some truth in this but Gilchrist also demonstrates, perhaps inadvertently, a danger for the singer in approaching this cycle of songs. At the risk of making an obvious point, the problem for the singer in Die schöne Müllerin - and for the listener too - is that we know what’s going to happen. We know that there’s an unhappy ending in store. But that’s not how things start off. The opening songs surely show us a confident young man, off into the world to seek his fortune, one who early on meets the girl of his dreams. Even at the end of their little tryst in Tränenregen, when the girl gets up and leaves, the young man doesn’t really sense an end to his hopes and in the very next song, Mein! he enthusiastically asserts that the girl is his. It’s only with the Erlkönig-like Der Jäger that a threat to his dreams of happiness materialises - and that’s the fourteenth song out of a collection of twenty! So, it seems to me that one of the challenges for the singer in this cycle is not to peak too soon. I wondered, listening to this performance, if Gilchrist had perhaps donned the mask of tragedy a little too early in the tale. As he observes later in the same note, “For a tale of such sadness, it is striking that that so much of the work is deliciously happy.”

A few months before making this recording James Gilchrist and Anna Tilbrook performed Die schöne Müllerin at the Oxford Lieder Festival and, to judge from the MusicWeb International review of that concert, the dark side of the cycle was very much to the fore then. Much of what Anne Ozorio noted in that recital is evident on the CD also, as one might expect.

Considering this recorded performance as a sequence, then, in Das Wandern we find the young man setting off, in Gilchrist’s portrayal, in a sturdy and purposeful fashion. After that I like the light voice with which Gilchrist delivers Wohin? In Danksagung an den Bach the young man has found a job and a love object, at which he expresses gentle contentment. Here Gilchrist’s easeful tone and legato are very pleasing.

The performance of Der Neugierige is a very good one and Gilchrist’s singing in the last two stanzas is particularly fine. He brings out the youthful longing very well indeed, though I do wonder if he is just a bit too melancholic rather then pensive? The next song, Ungeduld, is not quite so successful. The delivery is just a little bit breathless as Gilchrist seeks to convey the impatience of the song’s title. Jumping ahead, when we reach Der Jäger the same flaw is present - the words tumble out at a pace that’s just a fraction too hectic. To be sure, the mix of apprehension and contempt in the young man’s response to the arrival on the scene of the hunter is dramatically conveyed, but I think Gilchrist might have been even more bitingly effective at a fractionally steadier pace.

However, after the slight disappointment of Ungeduld Gilchrist is very expressive in Morgengruss, where the lovely light voice that I’ve so much enjoyed in his Bach recordings is used to excellent effect. His delivery of the repeated last line of each stanza is especially pleasing and I like the way he brings more resolution to his tone for the last verse.

When he is confident he’s won the girl’s heart, the delivery of Mein! is strong and triumphant. Perhaps other singers have put across more joyful exhilaration but Gilchrist’s performance still convinces.

As the mood of the cycle darkens appreciably and moves towards its tragic dénouement Gilchrist is a particularly fine exponent of Schubert’s music. He conveys bitter jealousy very successfully in Eifersucht und Stolz, for example. The final three songs are beautifully done. The splendidly controlled light tone and seamless legato in Trockne Blumen fall very pleasingly on the ear and the same vocal characteristics serve the melodic line of Der Müller und der Bach very well indeed. Gilchrist brings the cycle to an end with a beautifully judged reading of Des Baches Wiegenlied. The sorrowfully poetic tone he adopts is just right and his singing is very sensitive.

I’m conscious that I’ve mentioned the singer a lot and that the contribution of pianist Anna Tilbrook has rather gone unnoticed. That’s unfair for she plays very well indeed. It’s quite evident that she and Gilchrist work as an experienced team. I find you can tell very quickly if a pianist is ‘with’ the soloist and on this occasion it’s never in doubt. But Miss Tilbrook is far more than a “mere” accompanist: her playing of Schubert’s often very telling piano parts give consistent pleasure and she makes a major contribution to the performance without ever intruding so as to distract from the singer and the tale he has to relate.

I’ve commented earlier on Gilchrist’s view of this cycle. In fact, I don’t think my reaction has been influenced unduly by what he had to say in the booklet for I actually listened to it for the first time before I’d read the notes - and I only looked up the concert review when I began typing up my listening notes. This is a darker interpretation of the cycle than some that I’ve heard. Reactions to the interpretation are bound to be subjective. I’d welcome a bit more youthful optimism than I hear in the first few songs but other listeners may detect more of that quality than I do - or may subscribe more completely to Gilchrist’s philosophy of the work.

But leaving aside subjective issues of interpretation for a moment, there’s a great deal to enjoy in this performance. Gilchrist sings very well, his voice consistently pleasing to hear. His German sounds very good to me - though I am not a German speaker - and the words are very clear at all times. There’s not just one way to approach Die schöne Müllerin - Schubert’s music is too subtle and multi-faceted for that - and Gilchrist’s thoughtful and well-delivered conception has a good deal of validity. Captured in very good sound, this is a version that is well worth hearing and a recording that should further enhance the reputation of this fine English tenor.

John Quinn