Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D795
Christopher Maltman (baritone) Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. live, 8 December 2010, Wigmore Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English translations included
WIGMORE HALL LIVE WHLIVE0044 [62:34]
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 baritones.
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 schöne Müllerin
A masterly live recording of Die schöne Müllerin to which I’m sure I’ll return often in the future.