Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, D795 (1823)
Ian Bostridge (tenor)
Saskia Giorgini (piano)
rec. live April 2019, Wigmore Hall, London
German texts & English translations included
PENTATONE PTC5186775 [61:30]
In 2019 Pentatone released a new recording of Winterreise by Ian Bostridge. It preserved a live performance that he gave in 2018 at London’s Wigmore Hall with pianist Thomas Adès. I admired it very much (review). That release was promised as the first in a series to include all three of Schubert’s great Lieder collections and now we have Bostridge in Die schöne Müllerin. Again, the recording was made live at Wigmore Hall but this time Bostridge’s partner is the young Italian-Dutch pianist, Saskia Giorgini. I’ve not encountered her work before but a Seen and Heard colleague whose judgement I greatly respect has spoken warmly of her to me.
I know of two previous recordings of Die schöne Müllerin that Ian Bostridge has made. He began in 1995 with a studio performance in alliance with Graham Johnson as part of the Hyperion Complete Schubert Song Edition (review). Then came a 2003 EMI version, also recorded under studio conditions, with Mitsuko Uchida (review). Having heard all three of these versions I think it can safely be said that each time Bostridge returns to the work he has fresh ideas about it, as you’d expect from such an intelligent and perceptive artist.
Pentatone’s booklet notes comprise short essays by both artists. I was particularly struck by a comment made by Saskia Giorgini. She points out that “Schubert gives us few written out instructions on how to interpret his music. This sometimes intimidating self-denial is especially the case, of course, in the piano part of Die schöne Müllerin.” She’s right, and if one looks at, say, ‘Morgengruß’ or the first part of ‘Trockne Blumen’ it’s salutary to see how few notes there appear to be in the piano part – and the vocal line doesn’t look over-complicated either. But it’s what artists like this do to translate the printed music into a sensitive performance that counts – multum in parvo, you might say. Bostridge and Giorgini certainly get a great deal out of the printed page throughout this performance yet I never thought either of them was over-interpreting the music.
The first time I listened to this disc I admired very much the way the performers vary speeds, deploy rubato and, in Bostridge’s case, emphasise and colour certain words. I thought to myself that to some degree this might have been prompted by the inspiration of live performance and their desire to communicate with an audience. However, when I made some comparisons with Bostridge’s 2003 studio version, it seemed to me that on that occasion just the presence of microphones was sufficient stimulus. So, for example, in ‘Am Feierabend’ I loved the way that Bostridge and Giorgini treat the middle part of the song when the poet speaks of the workers sitting down once the day’s work has been done (‘Und da sitz’ ich in der grossen Runde’). Though nothing is marked in the music the performers, rightly, slow the tempo – and even more so at the point where the miller’s daughter says goodnight and leaves. It’s a most affecting passage in this 2019 performance but in the 2003 Uchida performance the tempo is eased almost as much, even without the stimulus of live performance, and when Bostridge gets to the girl’s farewell (‘Allen eine gute Nacht’) I’m not sure that his singing isn’t even more heart-wrenching in 2003 than he made it in 2019.
Both the 2003 and 2019 accounts of ‘Der Neugierige’ are marvellous and I relished perceptive details in both of them, but I was mildly surprised to find that the 2003 studio performance is, if anything, marginally more expansive. On the other hand, while both performances of ‘Pause’ are excellent, I think Bostridge finds even more in the words in front of the Wigmore Hall audience. Bostridge achieves terrific precision in his 2003 rendition of ‘Der Jäger’ but his articulation and the degree of bitter frustration are even more tellingly conveyed in this new recording. I didn’t make many comparisons with the 1995 Hyperion version but one song I did listen to was ‘Der Jäger’ and I’m afraid that I found the tempo far too cautious; Bostridge makes nothing like the same effect as he did in his two later recordings. I hasten to say, though, that there remains a great deal to admire in that Hyperion recording.
Moving to a general overview of the new disc, I found myself drawn into the performance from the start. Bostridge conveys the changing moods and fortunes of the young man brilliantly and Saskia Giorgini partners him most impressively. A good number of the songs are strophic and it can be a challenge for the singer to sustain the listener’s interest. That’s not the case here. As early as ‘Das Wandern’ we find Bostridge deploying a range of vocal colours and choosing unerringly which words need an extra bit of emphasis. Through such devices he makes each stanza a slightly different experience for the listener. ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ shows the prowess and flair of both artists. Giorgini weights the piano introduction perfectly, setting the stage ideally for her singer. This song, the fourth in the cycle, takes us to a new, deeper level of expression and Bostridge responds perfectly, conveying the aching longing in Schubert’s music.
I love the plangent tone he brings to ‘Morgengruß’. This is a strophic song and on paper the same music is repeated four times. Such is the artistry of Bostridge and Giorgini, however, that you might not notice that unless you had the vocal score in front of you; they bring subtle but telling little nuances to the music that characterise each verse slightly differently. Bostridge brings light, eager optimism to ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’ before the cycle pivots in a trice with the arrival of ‘Der Jäger’; all the young man’s bitter jealousy can be heard as Bostridge spits out the words, his tone deliberately hardened and narrowed. The intense melancholy of rejection is apparent in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ and then there’s greater anguish in ‘Die böse Farbe’. The conclusion of the cycle is wonderfully done. ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ paves the way emotionally for ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’; the brook embraces the young miller and gives him a resting place. The three-bar piano postlude is played so delicately by Saskia Giorgini that it almost seems as if the sound of the piano is fading out.
This is a very fine, perceptive account of Die schöne Müllerin. Bostridge and Giorgini drew me in, telling the story of the ill-fated young miller in a compelling fashion. Bostridge’s 2003 version with Mitsuko Uchida remans a very fine achievement but all admirers of this distinguished singer will want to hear his latest thoughts on the cycle and yet again he’s very fortunate in having such a gifted pianist with him. The recording, engineered by Philip Siney, is excellent, achieving a very satisfying balance between voice and piano. The documentation is very good and is clearly laid out. I suppose the Francis Bacon-style artwork is to be a feature of the series; it’s not to my taste.
I now look forward with keen anticipation to hearing Bostridge in Schwanengesang
Previous review: Simon Thompson