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Schubert maid SIGCD711
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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
The Fair Maid of the Mill, D 795
A new English version by Jeremy Sams
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2-4 March 2020, St Silas Church, Kentish Town, London
English texts enclosed
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview

Die schöne Müllerin is available in literally hundreds of recordings, so why bother recording it again? The natural answer is: these twenty songs and the story they tell are so fascinating – for the interpreters as well as the listeners – that they demand to be heard over and over again, and the singers and their pianists want to convey their personal view of them and, hopefully, say something new about them, give the listeners a fresh experience. In the present case there is a novelty as well: they are performed in a new English translation. I can hear Mr Grumpy muttering: the German words and the music are so interwoven that they can’t be separated from each other! There is some truth in this of course, but a good translation can be a help for listeners who are not fluent in German. Mr Grumpy again: I have lots of recordings of this work with good English translations printed side by side with the original. That works all right for me. And it does for me too, even though I understand German quite well, but even if I didn’t, I would feel that I get closer to the meaning of the words when I hear them sung than when I just read them. I also understand the wish of the translator to marry the music with the words. Jeremy Sams, who is responsible for this English version, is no newcomer to setting texts to music, having translated opera librettos frequently, but this was his first foray into Lieder, and he had been reluctant to approach Lieder, quoting his father saying, “Operas are story, Lieder are poetry”. He continues in the liner notes: “Therefore libretti can be rendered in audience friendly English, whereas poetry was too delicate”.

What made him change his attitude was that he realised that songs can be story too and Die schöne Müllerin is both story and theatre. Moreover, Wilhelm Müller’s language is quite simple, he hasn’t got the poetic depth of a Goethe or a Heine. So Jeremy Sams concludes: “If I can be simple and direct then I can match in some measure the poetry that moved Schubert so marvellously.” His modesty is becoming; to my mind these translations are admirable in their everyday-ness. But of course, I am not a reliable judge, being a foreigner myself.

Anyway, the versatile Nicky Spence savours the texts with obvious relish and expressivity, sometimes even too much. I would call it an expressionist reading with big gestures and extreme dynamics, full of contrasts both within each song and between the songs. The opening Somewhere is rather hard-driven, and Impatience (tr. 7) is relentlessly forward-moving. I imagine a parallel within visual art in Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka there and in several other songs, or maybe also Munch, another explicit expressionist. But elsewhere he is soft and beautiful (Monet?) – Curiosity (tr. 6), Her favourite colour (tr. 16) or the final The brook sings a lullaby (tr. 20). Everything feels deeply considered and he is careful over nuances and vocal colours. What he aims at is, I believe, to be as visual as possible to catch his audience, and I imagine him in a fairly spacious venue with some distance to the listeners, where big gestures don’t feel exaggerated. The opposite concept is the intimate approach of the great Danish lyric tenor Aksel Schiøtz, who recorded Die schöne Müllerin with Gerald Moore in the mid-1940s, which still is a benchmark recording for me. In my imagination he is sitting close to his accompanist with the audience in a half-circle around the two musicians, reading the story without many gestures. This dichotomy is an illustration to Jeremy Sams’ father’s saying “Operas are story, Lieder are poetry” and Jeremy’s insight that “songs can be story too and Die schöne Müllerin is both story and theatre”. Nicky Spence’s reading is theatre, Aksel Schiøtz’s is poetry. Which attitude is the preferable is up to the individual listener. I can accept both, depending on mood. Besides that, suffice it to say that that Nicky Spence technical ability is impeccable, that Christopher Glynn follows him like a shadow and that the recording balance is ideal.

Anyone in the need of a good recording of Die schöne Müllerin is spoilt for choice. If we limit the supply to tenors there is still a long list, including Ernst Haefliger, Peter Schreier, Christoph Pregardien, Jan Kobow and Daniel Behle, all of whom should satisfy the most discriminating listeners. For those wanting an English language version, Nicky Spence’s theatrical reading should be a natural choice, but also an interesting alternative version for well-stocked collectors.

Göran Forsling

Track Listing
1. Somewhere [2:34]
2. Where now? [2:24]
3. Stop! [1:30]
4. A thank you to the stream [2:15]
5. The end of a long day’s work [2:35]
6. Curiosity [4:01]
7. Impatience [2:38]
8. Good morning [4:19]
9. The miller’s flowers [3:27]
10. Tears like rain [4:07]
11. Mine! [2:23]
12. Interlude [4:54]
13. The green ribbon [1:51]
14. The huntsman [1:17]
15. Jealousy and pride [1:38]
16. Her favourite colour [4:12]
17. The hated colour [2:13]
18. Withered flowers [3:50]
19. The miller and the brook [4:11]
20. The brook sings a lullaby [6:54]

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