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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die Schöne Müllerin (1823) [66:12]
David Greco (baritone)
Erin Helyard (fortepiano)
rec. 22-28 July 2019, Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia
Reviewed as a digital download with pdf booklet
ABC CLASSICS 4818741 [66:12]

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 Recommended – review – and been intrigued by a collection of music by Australian women composers – review. 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 review), but sometimes Schubert gets rather left behind.

To begin with, then, as with their Winterreise, Greco and Helyard 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. Helyard and 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 Helyard 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 outpourings.

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.

David McDade

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