Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Decca
WORKS: Die schöne Müllerin
PERFORMER: Jonas Kaufmann (tenor), Helmut Deutsch (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 478 1528

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 This is easily the most searching and comprehensive account of Schubert’s first great song-cycle  that I have heard. Which is not to say that it is the most beautifully sung – that is Fritz Wunderlich; or the most agonised – that is Pears with Britten accompanying.
 
Kaufmann tells us in the booklet that he needed to record the cycle now, while his voice still sounds fairly youthful: he turned 40 last year, and already sounds more baritonal than he did when I first heard him sing it in Edinburgh in 2002, though his interpretation of it has deepened immeasurably since then.
 
What he emphasises now is the narrative, which is only implicit in the poems, following the development of the young miller from the wondering, naive youth of the opening songs, through the all-too-brief rapture of thinking that he has won the fair maid, to his rage and jealousy of the unexplained green huntsman to the despair and (Kaufmann insists in interview) suicide of the last song.
 
Kaufmann uses an unusually wide range of vocal colours to show the hero’s development, and is even prepared to make him sound slightly silly or petulant, which is fully congruent with the words. As Helmut Deutsch, the great accompanist, claims, some of the longer strophic songs need a good deal of subtle variation if they are not to become tedious: there are two consecutive ones in the first half where almost every rendition I have encountered seemed becalmed; but not here.
 
When the home stretch of numb misery and then annihilation sets in, Kaufmann commands a hypnotic tone which leaves one, as the long last song draws to its close, to wish that it could just go on lulling forever. One would never know this was a live recital, the audience was obviously as spell-bound as I was.