The catalogue is not exactly short of recordings of Die schöne
Müllerin, a number of which are extremely fine, so
a new version needs to be rather special if it’s to be
noticed. I don’t think this new recording by Christopher
Maltman will have much difficulty in attracting the attention
of collectors for here is an exciting, imaginative interpretation
of Schubert’s great song cycle, thrillingly sung and in
which the piano part is played with great perception by the
doyen of recital accompanists.
I love live recordings, especially those which document a single
performance as opposed to those edited together from more than
one performance. With a live reading you may get the odd technical
glitch; there’s always the possibility of intrusive audience
noise - though that’s not a problem here; and there can
be infelicities of balance that, like the technical glitches,
would have been edited out under studio conditions. But when
things come together in performance and an artist is inspired
by the presence of an audience then he or she may well take
a few risks and give more in performance. It’s fruitless
to speculate whether the present performance would have turned
out differently had it been recorded in the studio, but what
we have here is something pretty special.
One thing that strikes me is the extent to which Christopher
Maltman employs dynamic contrast and the use of the head voice.
These things not only impart a real sense of atmosphere; they
also enable him to draw his listeners more into the story. The
use of such vocal techniques don’t come across as artificial
in any way but just as elements in his array of expressive devices
through which he puts the music across in an involving and committed
way. Incidentally, one thing that I’ve learned since listening
to the CD is that, according to a critic from The Times,
who was present at the concert itself, Maltman often used higher
keys than is normal for a baritone. Since I don’t have
perfect pitch that’s not something I would have noticed
for myself but it may help to explain why there’s a lightness
of tone in this performance that one doesn’t always get
in low voice readings. I don’t mean to imply, by the way,
that the tone is lightweight - Maltman has a good, solid low
register, which he deploys to good effect - but there’s
no trace of heaviness in the performance.
Examples of this light tone and the use of head voice abound.
As early on as the end of the penultimate stanza of ‘Wohin?’
Maltman uses mezza voce and carries that across into
the last stanza, all to excellent effect. Again, in ‘Ungeduld’,
after opening with impetuous ardour Maltman fines back the sound,
employing a very restrained head voice in the last line of the
second stanza - ‘Dein ist mein Herz, und soll es ewig
bleiben’ - and he sustains that effect for much of the
succeeding verse also. Imaginative singing such as this makes
it quite easy for him to suggest the character of the young
man, something that tenors often find easier to accomplish than
Having stressed the subtlety of the singing I should make it
clear that Maltman also has ample reserves of forthright tone
when required. The start of ‘Ungeduld’, already
mentioned, offers one such example and there’s plenty
of dynamism in ‘Der Jäger’, where the singing
is exciting - as is the piano playing.
Overall, I’m sure that Maltman seeks to portray a vulnerable
young man - and he’s right to do so. Therefore light,
controlled singing is, for the most part, the order of the day.
His reading of ‘Trockne Blumen’ is memorable. The
technical control is superb and is the bedrock of an interpretation
that’s mainly withdrawn in tone until near the end when
the closing stanza is built to a (defiantly?) powerful climax.
In this, as throughout the performance, Graham Johnson is as
one with him throughout.
Johnson’s pianism is a delight from start to finish. Anyone
who has read his superb notes for the Hyperion
Schubert Lieder series will know that he has a profound
understanding of Schubert’s songs. That understanding,
and the depth of his musical and intellectual collaboration
with Christopher Maltman, is evident throughout this performance.
His playing is superbly poised in ‘Der Neugierige’,
supporting everything that Maltman does with the words and the
music of the vocal line, not least the very palpable sense of
longing that the singer brings to the third and fifth stanzas.
In ‘Der Jäger’ Johnson invests the music with
just the right amount of rhythmic impetus yet never makes it
sound hard driven - this isn’t ‘Erlkönig’.
And at the very end of the cycle, in ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’,
Johnson’s beautifully weighted accompaniment is the perfect
foundation on which Maltman can deliver the gentle poignancy
of the vocal line.
In short, both singer and pianist are masterly throughout this
performance. There are no overblown histrionics yet Maltman
uses vocal colouring and dynamic shading to tell the story of
the lovelorn, naïve youth expressively. The youth’s
ultimately fruitless pursuit of the girl of his dreams is brought
vividly to life and the listener is drawn in. This is a performance
of Die schöne Müllerin to which I’m sure
I’ll return often in the future.
The label’s usual high presentational standards are maintained.
The recorded sound is excellent, with a good, credible balance
between singer and piano, and the booklet contains a good note
by Hilary Finch. One particularly perceptive phrase caught my
eye in which she refers to Schubert’s music as “a
suggestive stage manager” as Wilhelm Müller’s
tale is unfolded for the audience. As I commented earlier, the
audience is commendably unobtrusive and though there’s
well-merited applause at the end the Wigmore Hall patrons are
sufficiently discerning that they give the performance a little
time to settle at the end before showing their appreciation.
Mastework Index: Die