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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, Op 25, D795
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Dunwich, UK
German text & English translation included
CHANDOS CHAN20113 [65:15]

I remember enjoying a splendid performance of Die schöne Müllerin by these artists at the Chipping Campden Music Festival in May 2017 (review). I learnt then that Williams and Burnside were in the midst of a three-year project, involving the two Müller song cycles and Schwanengesang, leading up to performances at the Wigmore Hall in 2018. On the basis of what I heard that evening I hoped recordings might be forthcoming, perhaps on the Wigmore Hall Live label; in fact, it’s Chandos who have picked up the baton and this release is the first in a projected series of three.

It came as quite a surprise to me to learn at Chipping Campden that prior to embarking on this project with Iain Burnside none of these three great song collections were in Roderick Williams’ repertoire. Still, I suppose, there are so many people clamouring for him to sing all manner of concert and operatic roles that there must be a limit on his repertoire. Anyway, though we’ve had to wait for him to tackle the songs it’s been worth the wait. There seems to me to be a freshness about this account of Die schöne Müllerin. Furthermore, Williams displays his trademark care for the words and I’m sure that in learning these songs he’s been as thorough in his study of and reflection on Wilhelm Müller’s poems as on Schubert’s music. I hope he won’t mind me saying that Williams, who was born in 1965, would have been 53 when this recording was made. I mention that because it seems to me that simply hearing Williams’ voice here you would not guess his age: he is very successful indeed at deploying his vocal resources intelligently so as to suggest the persona of a young man.

‘Das Wandern’ is put across with a light, easy delivery and there’s a positive air to proceedings. I noticed that occasionally Williams inserts a discreet ornamentation on the repeated word at the end of some of the stanzas – ‘Steine’, for example. I don’t know if these are his own ornaments or are in a more recent edition of the Peters score than mine but I like the effect very much, especially as it’s not overdone.

In ‘Wohin?’ the contrast between the young miller’s carefree thoughts and those which are slightly more apprehensive is well done. In ‘Danksagung an den Bach’. Iain Burnside begins the song in a wonderfully easeful fashion which Williams then picks up as he suggests the enraptured young man. Here is just one example among many of his ability to spin a seamless vocal line. In ‘Der Neugierige’ both artists achieve a real sense of inwardness in the sehr langsam passage (’O Bächlein, meiner Liebe’) and the start of the fourth stanza (‘”Ja”, heißt das eine Wörtchen’) is delivered most effectively as a quasi-recitative. This song presents us with arguably the most expressive singing we’ve heard so far.

In ‘Morgengruß’ the expressive nuances of both artists make you forget that this is a strophic song in which, on paper, the music is the same for each of the four stanzas. ‘Tränenregen’ finds our hero sitting by the brookside with the object of his desires. The poignant payoff in the final stanza as she briskly takes her leave at the first sign of rain is nicely executed here. In the next song, ‘Pause’, Williams really digs deep into both the words and the music. His singing is wonderfully expressive as he takes us right into the melancholy romantic thoughts of the young miller. When it comes to ‘Der Jäger’, Williams and Burnside shun surface excitement and opt for a relatively measured approach. The result is that although the words aren’t spat out at a furious pace, as I’ve heard some singers do, admirable clarity of articulation is achieved and there’s no sense of a breathless rush. ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ is full of bitter disappointment and envy and when we get to ‘Die liebe Farbe’ Williams’ expertly controlled intensity leaves us in no doubt that a corner has been reached – and turned. ‘Die böse Farbe’ is dramatic and has an air of desperation, yet this is all done without unwarranted histrionics; everything is achieved through the highly intelligent use of vocal and pianistic colours.

The tale nears its dénouement and the performance of ‘Trockne Blumen’ is delivered sadly and in a withdrawn manner until Schubert reaches the last two stanzas of Müller’s poem when the young man senses his possible epitaph and becomes a little more forthright. ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ is a highlight of this particular performance. Caringly supported by Burnside, Williams sings with superb technical control. There’s gentle, resigned sadness as he voices the words of the young miller but this turns to reassuring balm when we hear the words of the brook, Finally, the young man achieves rest in ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’. Here is gentle consolation. Singer and pianist perform this song beautifully and most poetically: the concluding stanza is so poignant.

This is a beautiful and thoughtful account of Die schöne Müllerin. Roderick Williams’ approach is supremely intelligent and apart from the interpretative care he takes, his singing per se will give enormous pleasure. He’s supported at every step of the way in an ideal fashion by Iain Burnside. No one singer will unlock every facet of Schubert’s wonderful cycle – which is a good enough excuse for me when it comes to justifying having a good few versions in my collection – but Williams offers a perceptive, deeply considered and poetically sung interpretation. I’m impatient to hear this pair in Winterreise and Schwanengesang.

Chandos held the sessions in Potton Hall, which is an ideal venue for art song recordings. The results, engineered by Jonathan Cooper and Rosanna Fish, are very pleasing indeed. Voice and piano are both ideally reported and the balance between the two is ideal. As usual with Chandos, the documentation is very thorough with the original texts and Richard Wigmore’s fine English translation clearly set out. There’s a very good essay by Brian Newbould though throughout it his discussion of keys relates to Schubert’s original high keys whereas, we are told, Williams understandably uses the low key transposition published by Edition Peters.

John Quinn

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