Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die Schöne Müllerin
David Greco (baritone)
Erin Helyard (fortepiano)
rec. 22-28 July 2019, Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Australian Broadcasting
Reviewed as a digital download with pdf booklet
ABC CLASSICS 4818741
We have become so used to listening to the Schubert song cycles as a form
of psychodrama that it is difficult to remember that this isn’t the only
way with this music. Every performer of them has to reckon in some form
with the giant shadow of Fischer Dieskau. The influence of the great German
baritone is so immense that it is taken as gospel that before him Schubert
performance was all pretty melodies and gemütlich kitsch. The awkward truth
is that right back to the start of the recording era, this wasn’t the whole
story. It is, of course, possible that the worst sort of Schubert didn’t
make it on to crackling wax discs but I am not wholly convinced.
The performers on this disc from 2020 have impressive qualifications to
make historically informed points about performing Schubert. They aren’t
just performers but possess academic honours to back their period
performances up. Of course, all period performers these days have PhDs, but
it doesn’t always make for inspiring music making.
I have been delving into recent releases from the Australian Broadcasting
Corporation’s own label over the summer and have already been captivated by
exceptional Brahms symphonies from the Australian Chamber Orchestra
– and been intrigued by a collection of music by Australian women composers
I was further impressed by an earlier release by these same performers of
Winterreise (ABC 4817470).
The manner of that recording is extended into this one. I think that manner
is likely to decide how much you warm to this Schöne Müllerin. It would be
nonsense to suggest that any account of any of the Schubert song cycles
puts words so far in advance of the music as to forget the music, so when I
talk about words and music, I mean the subtle balance between the two. If I
state that Greco and Helyard place the emphasis on musical matters, I am
not implying that they are deaf to the meaning of the words. For me, their
performance always places the drama within the bounds set by the musical
limits of the song. This is particularly important in the many strophic
songs, where acting out the words is a way of varying the repeated verses.
Helyard tastefully adds ornaments but otherwise the performers bravely
allow us to hear what Schubert wrote without the additional handwringing
which now seems de rigueur; I think of Bostridge as an exemplar of this
latter approach. It can be very exciting, as in his recent Winterreise with
Thomas Adès (Pentatone PTC5186764: Recommended –
review), but sometimes Schubert gets rather left behind.
To begin with, then, as with their Winterreise, Greco and
may seem a little deficient in theatricality. But, as with their version of
the later cycle, the cumulative effect as we move through the songs is
quietly powerful. This is Schubert through stealth.
Helyard’s choice of keyboard, a 2015 copy by Paul McNulty of an Anton Graf
instrument from round about 1818, is an agreeably toned and well regulated
instrument which adds a lot without any significant drawback unless you
just cannot do with the sound of the fortepiano at all. As fortepianos go,
this is free from clatter and its tone is full. As with Andras Schiff’s
recordings on ECM, period pianos reveal themselves again and again as
clearly the instrument Schubert had in mind. Lots of his best effects
register most fully on them.
Greco possesses a very natural and really rather lovely baritone which is a
pleasure to listen to regardless of interpretation. The ‘music first’
approach has the happy effect of allowing Schubert’s almost indecent number
of delectable melodies in this cycle to really shine. Greco sings like
someone revelling in singing great tunes. Even more interestingly, I was
reminded that the beauty of these melodies is a key part of the
psychological effect of this music, at least as much as word painting.
All of these qualities come together best in Die liebe Farbe – the tolling
notes in the accompaniment work particularly well on the period keyboard;
Greco resists the temptation to ham up the words and lets Schubert’s
sublime inspiration do its work.
This doesn’t mean that the second half lacks dramatic impetus.
Greco run several songs into each in a most compelling manner. My point is
that they never let drama distort melody. We know that more can be wrung
from these words but I enjoyed this music first approach a great deal.
The final song of all brings a triumphant vindication of the whole
performance. There is a stillness and quietness to the music making, with
Helyard able to get real half shades out of his piano and Greco scaling
down his voice virtually to a sotto voce but without loss of richness. It
is simply beautiful and highly affecting as the rocking accompaniment
intended to conjure up the flowing stream seems to drift off into eternity.
If I heard this in concert, I would be on my feet afterwards.
On the debit side, there is a certain irony in finding Greco and
less convincing in the first half of the cycle. Whilst Winterreise presents
a unique challenge in finding variety in so many dark songs, welding the
two halves of the Schöne Müllerin together is no mean feat. My first
experience of the earlier cycle was Britten and Pears (Heritage HTGCD234,
or various Decca box sets). Regardless of what you think of Pears’ voice or
his German, Britten’s inspirational accompaniment is the thread that ties
up the disparate elements. My personal preference amongst more modern
accounts is Werner Güra with Jan Schultsz on Harmonia Mundi (HMA1951708,
budget-price, download only, no booklet). A tenor voice is a real asset in
the earlier songs and Güra darkens his gleaming tenor successfully to
tackle the second half. Comparing the ease of his singing with Greco’s, the
Australian can sometimes seem a little ungainly in these delicate, lyrical
As I have already indicated, this becomes less of an issue as the work
progresses, though it is unfortunate that the worst thing on this disc is
the very first song of the cycle. The rather lugubrious tempo taken for
this first song, Das Wandern, isn’t helped by Helyard’s somewhat crass
variations of the accompaniment and Greco’s decoration of the vocal line in
the first song borders on the grotesque. As Helyard points out his
personable and erudite notes, Greco has based these vocal ornaments on the
1830 edition by the great Schubert singer, Johann Michael Vogel. I always
feel that vocal ornamentation is a highly personal thing: what works for
one singer might not be right for another. It is a matter of personal taste
and mostly I found both singer and pianist full of exemplary good taste,
with this one notable instance leaving me unconvinced. In their defence, I
suppose theirs is the speed with which a water wheel turns.
One peculiarity is the inclusion of the G flat Impromptu D898 after the
twelfth song Pause. This is presumably meant to mark the shift in mood
between the two halves of the cycle. Perhaps, as one of Schubert’s most
liquid evocations of flowing water, it is intended to represent the stream
itself, which acquires a more personified presence in the latter half of the
cycle. Even though it is beautifully played, I found the sudden intrusion
of Schubert’s late style into this earlier work surprisingly jarring. Even
though not all of the composer’s late works are as dark as Winterreise, I
feel there is a crossing of the Rubicon with that song cycle that divides
his music into before and after.
But I do not wish to dwell too much on these negatives given that the
positives far outweigh them. Like me, many readers will already possess a
stupid number of recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin. Does this recording go
to the top of that groaning pile? No it doesn’t, but that isn’t the same as
it not being worth a listen. I found Greco and Helyard’s vision of the
piece highly refreshing as well as entertaining.