Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

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COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Philips
WORKS: Die schöne Müllerin
PERFORMER: Wolfgang Holzmair (baritone), Imogen Cooper (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 456 581-2
At last the Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair revisits Schubert’s love-lorn miller’s apprentice, adding his second Die schöne Müllerin to the Winterreise and Schwanengesang already recorded with Imogen Cooper. His 1984 recording with Jörg Demus won many hearts: it was refreshingly youthful, intimate, truly sung, if not deeply probing. Now, 15 years on, he remains the disarmingly plain-speaking country lad, but is willing to look a little further under the skin, to focus more closely on nuances of articulation, phrasing and colour.

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In communing with himself, or with the brook (much the same thing), that seductive tremor of vibrato which characterises Holzmair’s hushed singing gives his performance true pathos. He is never afraid to draw back, to take time; and as a result his ‘Trockne Blumen’ is one of the most heartbreakingly emotion-drained on disc, his soul as arid as the withered flowers. But when the life-force briefly picks up in between the cycle’s episodes of introspection, Holzmair and Cooper never really find a convincing sense of impulse and urgency. Both are rhythmically keen in ‘Ungeduld’, but lack drive and momentum.

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With Fischer-Dieskau and Schreier still alive and kicking in the catalogue, there are benchmarks aplenty. But standing out among them all is Ian Bostridge’s still unsurpassed performance with Graham Johnson – and with Fischer-Dieskau himself speaking the poems Schubert did not set. Not only does this framework provide a uniquely satisfying experience, but Bostridge captures the anguish of the co-existing physical reality and introspective fantasy in the mind and music of the miller-lad in a performance of ever-yielding insights. Hilary Finch