Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin - Prégardien / Gees
Challenge Classics CC 72292
Classical - Vocal
Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin Op. 25 D.795
Christoph Prégardien (tenor)
Michael Gees (piano)
In many details, the first edition of the cycle, which appeared in 1824, is unreliable – and this was soon apparent. When Anton Diabelli in 1830, one and a half years after Schubert’s death, acquired the rights of the cycle, he strove to improve the edition. Diabelli asked the famous singer Johann Michael Vogl, who had been a friend of Schubert, to arrange the vocal part in such a way that it would create the most possible resonance with the public. And this he did: he added – albeit sparingly – some embellishments he had sung himself, when Schubert accompanied him. In many places he saw fit to simplify a few things that he would not have expected of domestic music makers. Vogl and Diabelli had great success with this edition, which quickly superseded the original one.
In the course of the incipient Schubert researches of the second half of the 19th century the original edition was compared with Diabelli’s, and the “Fälschungen” (falsifications) were soon condemned (Max Friedlaender). Unquestionably, it is fair to say that Vogl’s “simplifications” are in fact inadmissible changes. But what about the embellishments?
Vogl’s embellishments for Die schöne Müllerin had a decidedly chamber-music character. Had he performed the whole cycle as a dramatic song cycle in the concert hall, this would undoubtedly have changed. But this shows us something essential: embellishments belong to the realm of performance, not of composition; each singer should invent them anew in keeping with the occasion of a performance. They do not belong in a printed edition, as they bind the singer; when printed they in fact become “falsifications”. That said, a performance practice that aims to be “historic” should not renounce embellishments either. The embellishments that Christoph Prégardien sings here take as their point of departure the type of embellishments preserved in Diabelli’s print (and in a few manuscripts), but where the singer introduces them and how he shapes them in each case is up to his own invention.
Review by John Miller - February 24, 2008
Christoph Prégardien was hailed as "a prince among tenors" by a Gramophone critic, and certainly his contribution to Graham Johnson's complete RBCD survey of the Schubert songs was one of the most significant jewels in that crown. He has two favourite partners. In 1992 he recorded Die schöne Müllerin with Andreas Staier on a period piano (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, RBCD), and here Michael Gees plays for him on a contemporary instrument (probably a Steinway).
The reason for Prégardien's revisiting the song-cycle, apart from having it in high-resolution sound, is that he uses the Diabelli edition of 1830, rather than than the unreliable Viennese edition of 1824. Further, Diabelli employed Schubert's great friend and supporter, the famous singer Johann Michael Vogt, to indicate the style of vocal ornaments that he himself used. Soloists have been spontaneously decorating vocal lines since the very origin of singing. In Schubert's time, there were two levels of ornamentation. At public concerts, the style was quite florid, showing off the singer's virtuosity, whereas in domestic performance, such as the famous Schubertiads, the ornaments were much more discrete and enhanced the singer's emotions. Prégardien, having noted Vogel's written-out suggestions, improvises his own, 'on the wing' as it were, so no two performances are exactly the same. All the ornaments which my ears picked up were discreet, appropriate and personalised the drama, without disrupting the musical line.
Schubert came across the schöne Müllerin poems in late 1822. They were the work of playwright and poet Johann Ludwig Wilhelm Müller, whose story of a miller lad becoming infatuated with a miller's daughter was not original, having been used my Goethe among others. With his unerring ability to find material which inspired him musically and dramatically (even though the poetry was mediocre), Schubert selected 20 poems to form a clear narrative. This became his first major song-cycle, and the only one to have the a story linking all the songs. His other major contribution to re-constructing the German Lied as an art form was to take the piano part far beyond mere accompaniment, making it an equal partner.
Beneath Die schöne Müllerin is a rich vein of nature and colour symbolism, together with many psychological insights. The pianist is called upon to imitate a variety of sounds, from a flowing brook and pounding mill-wheels to lute music, and a hunter's horn. There are a number of dissonances, each carefully placed to greatest dramatic effect. Michael Gees is certainly an 'unashamed accompanist'. He is beautifully balanced with the voice so that one can hear the harmonic changes and subordinate melodies clearly - as though the piece was orchestrated. The dynamics are masterfully graded in complex layers by the duo, as tensions ebb and flow. This culminates in the first fortissmo passage, which is not until the work is half-way through (in 'Mein!' where the exuberant miller's lad imagines that he has successfully captured the mill-maid's attention).
Schubert personalises the miller lad's plight by giving the soloist his voice, except for the first and last songs, in which the singer portrays the all-seeing Brook's commentary on the situation. Without undue histrionics, Prégardien shows us the vulnerable lad's intoxicated love alternating with desperate self-doubt as the miller-maid remains, in fact, indifferent to him. When she takes up with the visiting hunter, the duo reveal his anger and jealous passion, which brings about his total dissolution, until the Brook itself poignantly bears his body down to the sea. Human truths are captured by Schubert, despite the indifferent poetry, and he gives them timeless expression.
'Warmth' was the word which sprang to my mind in listening to the first bars of this recording. The performers' generous warmth and deep understanding of the drama, the sonorous warmth of the piano tone and the warmth of the recording environment are much in evidence. The Galaxy Studios at Mol in Belgium offer near-perfect acoustics, and the sheer presence of the artists in one's listening space is breath-taking. High Definition Audio is not just for orchestral spectaculars, but for capturing the attack of voice and piano and resolving the their distinct timbres. It thus increases the communication between musicians and listeners whatever the size of ensemble.
I admire the starkly simple cover art on the card disc box and the open layout of the booklet. The commentary and artist biographies are in English, German and French, and I especially commend the use of a larger than usual font for the text printing, greatly enhancing its readability. Other companies who favour micro-type in their inserts should take note!
This is a deeply considered and deeply felt transcription of Die schöne Müllerin, which resonates in the mind long after being heard. I fervently hope that Challenge Records will consider giving us a Winterreise cycle from these performers.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net