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Schubert Fair maid SIGCD711
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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
The Fair Maid of the Mill D.795
(Die schöne Müllerin in a new English translation by Jeremy Sams)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2020, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London

This is the third in the Signum label’s sequence of Schubert song cycles using an English version of the texts by Jeremy Sams. His is in no sense a literal translation and is never in the least archly “poetic”, but is instead couched in relatively, plain, direct English which captures the spirit and directness of the original German while jettisoning any faux-Romantic or medieval archaisms such as “fain would I”. The translation is vernacular and quotidian but not modish or vulgar – and Sams does a fine job of reproducing the rhyming, strophic form of some songs, finding workable rhymes which do not sound forced, so in “Mine” we hear “sound, round, resound” and “found”, and “shine, wine, intertwine, combine” and “mine” sequentially to reproduce the effect of the German. The freedom of the English into which some songs are rendered might initially take the listener aback but a moment’s reflection will confirm the aptness and fidelity of Sams’ rendering; hence, the opening song begins “A miller loves to sit and dream of somewhere” rather than “To wander is the miller’s delight, to wander” or some such precious transliteration – and I know which I prefer. Sometimes the translation is both felicitous and amusing, as when in “Impatience” (Ungeduld) Sams picks up on the German: “ich möcht es sän auf jedes frische Beet/Mit Kressensamen” (I’d like to sow it in every fresh bed with cress seeds) and translates that colloquially as “I want to sow the words in watercress” so that it rhymes with “happiness” in the next line, and in “The Hunter” the miller girl’s cabbage patch (Kohlgarten) is transformed into a “strawberry bed” so that “fruit” rhymes conveniently with “shoot”. Certain lines impress themselves immediately upon the mind of the listener by their memorability, such as the alliterative “The sound of rushing water has mesmerised my mind” in the second song.

Nicky Spence’s diction is so pellucid as to render the provision of the English texts almost superfluous but such thoughtfulness on the part of the label remains a welcome gesture. Any tenor who embarks upon a recording of this cycle will be conscious of the shade of predecessors such as Aksel Schiøtz and Fritz Wunderlich looming over his shoulder, and while Spence’s voice does not quite have the poetic intimacy of Schiøtz or the melting tenderness of Wunderlich’s, his is still a beautiful, flexible, easily-produced sound which never falters; his tone encompasses both sweetness and power as required and his knack of placing just the right emphasis or applying a momentary pause in the words without unduly disrupting the vocal line is apparent throughout. I particularly like the way he can introduce a desperate sighing note into his timbre without it turning mawkish. Christopher Glynn supports him with some of the most subtle and sensitive pianism I have even heard applied to this work; his playing is by turns as fluid, sparkling and turbulent as rushing water. He and Spence make an ideally matched partnership – fresh and immediate, presenting it in a manner which could easily win new adherents to this miraculous song cycle but, in Glynn’s words, is also capable of “offering a new perspective to those who know it well.”

Ralph Moore

Previous review: Göran Forsling

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