, July 2009
It’s often the case that viewing a performance in addition to hearing it can make it seem significantly better. This live performance of Die Schöne Müllerin is not identical to the SACD studio version that Henry Fogel found in 32: 4 to have “neither [enough] vocal distinction nor dramatic insight to raise itself above the level of the ordinary,” but it was given by the same artists at around the same time. Fogel qualifies his criticism by saying that the recording would probably give pleasure as a live performance, but just wasn’t competitive with the 76 other versions listed by arkivmusic.com. Well, seeing Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees perform on this DVD provides pleasure and quite a bit more. I was particularly moved by the final sequence of death-haunted songs that culminates in the sublime “Des Baches Wiegenlied,” the brook’s welcoming lullaby to the miller in his death, here given a more forceful reading than usual.
Prégardien sings with great sincerity and commitment to every note and word of Die schöne Müllerin. Compared to other celebrated tenor performances of this cycle, his delivery is less sumptuous than Fritz Wunderlich’s but more varied, his music-making more energetic than the placid, refined approach of Aksel Schiøtz, and he’s far less mannered than Ian Bostridge. I find his voice to be quite beautiful, his pitch accurate; and his interpretation brings out meaningful contrasts in characterization between verses in the strophic songs. The miller’s alternation between delusion and pathos as the cycle progresses is masterfully showcased by Prégardien, sometimes with as little as a raised eyebrow. He has an unpretentious manner and expressive hands.
Prégardien’s long-time collaborator, pianist Michael Gees, plays Schubert’s magnificent accompaniments with visible affection and perfect ensemble with Prégardien. His instrument is a 9-foot Steinway concert grand (with the lid all the way open), and he uses a lavish amount of pedal. If there’s a weakness in his playing, it is that passages meant to be played staccato aren’t articulated quite enough.
What differentiates this performance from others is that Prégardien and, to a lesser extent, Gees add some ornamentation to their parts. In the DVD’s interview section, Prégardien argues that because this is now standard practice in performing bel canto opera from the same period as Schubert, and because Johann Michael Vogl’s notations indicate that Schubert expected it in his songs, it is a legitimate practice. (I would be interested in hearing counter arguments, if there are any.) In any case, these are thoughtful performers; their choices of ornaments sound thoughtful as well, and not imposed in a showy way. It is a reflection of where things have evolved in “historically informed” performance practice that a scholarly musician like Prégardien, whose orientation toward Schubert comes from earlier music, feels free to improvise ornaments but also to use the modern Steinway. I welcome this non-doctrinaire state of affairs!
The only other DVDs of Die schöne Müllerin are two performances featuring Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, but these songs sound best in Schubert’s original keys sung by a tenor. I strongly recommend this performance.