Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Wigmore Hall Live
WORKS: Die schöne Müllerin
PERFORMER: Christopher Maltman (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)

This is an extraordinarily subtle performance of Schubert’s first great cycle. Wonderfully recorded, with an ideal balance between soloist and pianist, it leaves you wondering, at times, who is accompanying whom. One’s usual thought about the cycle is that the pianist spends much of his time depicting the flowing stream in which the Miller finally drowns himself, while the singer a protagonist who falls in love with the fair maid of the title; then briefly, halfway through, wins her; and afterwards rapidly loses her to the mysterious green huntsman, and meets his watery end. But Graham Johnson’s playing, so detailed, often surprising, and often with unusual emphases, leads you to concentrate harder on Wilhelm Müller’s much-derided verses, and to realise how ambiguous they are from the start.
In this performance the turning point comes in the tenth song, perhaps the least interesting musically, in which, sitting by the Miller’s side, with him about to exult that the maid is ‘Mein!’, she says ‘It’s about to rain, goodbye, I’m going home’. An unemphatic bombshell. Schubert’s shifts from major to minor or the reverse are always momentous, but Johnson makes them feel as if the bottom has fallen out of the world. Christopher Maltman, with his gloriously warm light baritone, is born along on the stream of the piano’s uncertainties, and the total effect is disturbing and unique. This might not be a first choice for this great work, but it is certainly indispensable for anyone wanting to probe beneath its adorable surface. Michael Tanner