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Franz SCHUBERT  (1797-1828) 
Die schöne Müllerin  D795 (1823) 
Florian Boesch (baritone); Malcolm Martineau (piano) 
rec. 20-24 May 2013, All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London 
German texts and English translations included
ONYX 4112 [62:45]

This is my third encounter with Florian Boesch singing Schubert. Back in 2008 I reviewed a recital at the Cheltenham Festival in which he gave a most impressive account of Schwanengesang. As an aside, I see that the group of five other Lieder that he sang on that occasion are included on a new Schubert disc that Boesch has recorded for Hyperion (CDA68010). More recently he made a fine recording of Winterreise for Onyx (review). Now he and Malcolm Martineau have returned to the same London church to record Schubert’s earlier Müller cycle.
It’s not by accident that their recordings of the two Müller cycles have appeared in this order. In a very interesting set of comments in the booklet Florian Boesch reveals that he found it difficult fully to come to terms with the ending of Die schöne Müllerin and the last two songs in particular; he was unwilling to perform the cycle in public until he was satisfied that he understood the ending. It was through performing Winterreise that he reached that understanding. In essence - and I’m paraphrasing his whole argument ruthlessly - Boesch believes that though the cycle depicts the mental turmoil of the infatuated young miller it is likely that there has not, in fact, been any contact between him and the miller’s daughter: it’s all in the mind. Crucially, he has come to the view that the young man does not die at the end of the cycle but that the reference at the end of Müller’s last poem to a full moon rising indicates a positive conclusion. Noting that the last song is a lullaby, not a song of farewell, Boesch concludes that at the end of ‘the inner dialogue of the miller with his own voice of reason. I am convinced that the miller emerges from this process healed and ready for his next amorous adventure.’ It’s an unconventional view of the cycle but clearly a view that Boesch has reached only after very careful thought. I can imagine that some may disagree with his stance but, even so, and even though his view inevitably colours his interpretation of the whole cycle, one can still sit back and enjoy an outstanding performance of Die schöne Müllerin 
That this is, indeed, an outstanding performance became clear to me during the first two or three songs. Boesch’s singing per se and his intelligent, perceptive response to the texts gives immense pleasure. One thing that inclined me very much in his favour is the lightness of his voice throughout almost all the performance. Though I don’t by any means dismiss performances of these songs by lower-voiced singers my instinctive preference is to hear the lighter timbre of a tenor singing in the original high keys. Boesch, with his light vocal touch, sounds youthful in ‘Das Wandern’, his cause helped by the quite brisk pace that he and Malcolm Martineau adopt. Boesch’s delivery sounds so easy, as it does in ‘Wohin?’ He uses a slightly bigger voice for ‘Halt!’ but he still keeps the essential vocal lightness.
In ‘Dankgesang an den Bach’ I love the beguiling phrasing. Boesch and Martineau make the song sound so easy: it’s not. With ‘Am Feierabend’ we find the performers willing to make little unmarked modifications of tempo - at least they’re not marked in my copy - to put over the words more effectively. Unmarked these tempo modifications may be, but they are intelligent and work very well.
A little later in the cycle the hunter appears in ‘Der Jäger’. Many singers deliver this song in a fast and furious style - and that’s a perfectly reasonable and acceptable approach. Boesch, however, does something slightly different; he inserts tiny but perceptible breaks into the vocal line. If that sounds all wrong, it isn’t. It’s very effective and through this device he and Martineau build momentum in a different and exciting fashion. The tension builds cumulatively and very effectively. In ‘Die liebe Farbe’ Boesch deploys a marvellously controlled mezza voce in the first and third stanzas, opening up his voice just a bit for the middle stanza; his performance of this song is hypnotically expressive. A veiled, hushed mezza voce is also used to deliver ‘Trockne Blumen’.
So we come to the last two songs, the ones which, in the past, had caused Boesch such interpretative trouble. In ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ Boesch adopts a withdrawn voice, at a slow tempo, for the boy but when the voice of the brook is heard the tempo is slightly quicker and he employs a fuller voice. When the boy speaks again, in the last four lines of the poem, Boesch sounds less inward and sorrowful than he did at the start of the song, suggesting acceptance on the boy’s part: he’s ready to move on. So ‘Der Baches Wiegenlied’ is smooth and consoling. Boesch and Martineau, as they’ve done so often in the cycle, use variety of colour, small tempo modifications and rubato to introduce variety into this strophic setting.
I found this to be an exceptional and sensitive account of Die schöne Müllerin. I like Boesch’s approach to the cycle, not least the way in which, through his light, easy voice, he suggests youthfulness and engages our sympathies for the young man. I’m conscious that I’ve focused on Boesch perhaps to the detriment of Martineau. If so, I apologise for that’s very unfair. His playing is a consistent source of delight and his imaginative touches and subtle nuances illuminate the music - and the words - time and again without the slightest suspicion of point-making. Theirs is a true and most effective partnership and I hope they will now go on to record Schwanengesang.
I have several very fine recordings of Die schöne Müllerin in my collection, some sung by tenors and some by baritones. This thoughtful and expertly performed version, presented in excellent sound, is one that I now rank among the finest that I’ve heard.
John Quinn 

Previous review: Ralph Moore

Masterwork Index: Die schöne Müllerin