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Christian Gerhaher: Die Schöne Müllerin 

CD Button Huber, piano. Text & translation. Sony Classical 8898 542 7402

Recordings Gerhaher Muellerin cover 418
Critics Choice Button 1015 

IN THEIR SECOND recording of Die Schöne Müllerin, baritone Christian Gerhaher and pianist Gerold Huber match the beauty and sensitivity of their 2003 collaboration; at times, they surpass it. Grateful listeners will appreciate—and perhaps debate—differences between the two sets, but they’re of tone and style rather than something more fundamental.

This cycle offers fewer chances for large-scale interpretive distinctions than Schubert’s Winterreise. A virtual consensus has emerged in the past half-century about the overall shape and pacing of the Müllerin,with its clearer story line, more frequent use of stanza structure and the modern need to subvert sentimentality. At least since Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, everyone is impatient, eager for speed even in a song in which the title (“Halt!”) and Schubert’s tempo marking (“Not too fast”) argue against it. In “Ungeduld” (Impatience), marked “somewhat quick,” interpreters almost invariably dismiss the qualifier and produce a storm. 

Gerhaher and Huber stand out from the crowd in their bold, downright risky slow take on the final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied” (The brook’s lullaby), which runs a full two minutes longer than the 1961 Fischer-Dieskau version. Yet at certain moments their pace is even slower, and their poise and subtlety, without a hint of exaggeration, are exemplary. But that was true in the previous recording as well.

Gerhaher’s own liner notes proclaim a change of emphasis in his interpretation, based on close study of the original text by Wilhelm Müller, especially individual poems that Schubert chose not to set. Those five excluded poems, now added to the recording (as recited by Gerhaher), underline the heroine’s indifference to the young man, from beginning to end, and his own persistent self-delusion.

Not everyone will welcome these spoken interruptions to the flow of the music. And the bantering tone of the opening and closing verses (which Fischer-Dieskau also added to his 1961 disc) risks trivializing the drama. But Gerhaher assures us that his performance is indebted to Müller as well as to Schubert. The singer singles out the lyrical tenth song, “Tränenregen” (Rain of tears), as a pivot for the entire drama and proof of the hero’s isolation. 

These insights are commendable; the problem is in hearing them in the exact places and ways he specifies. It’s hard to detect tangible differences in the new treatment of the all-important “Tränenregen.” The next song, the fast-paced “Mein!,” we’re told, is no longer pure exultation—yet it sounds much as it did on the earlier recording.

Still, something has changed. Gerhaher’s voice and especially its deployment have evolved. His earlier singing was a bit more robust, the higher register sometimes showing a richer mix of head and chest timbres that, with his free attack, was truly exhilarating. He now favors greater transparency of tone, a more tenorial timbre, and exerts even finer control of line and dynamics. The singer’s precision, fine legato and integration of text with music seem more secure than ever, while the close interaction with Huber is always rewarding.

Generally, if quite subtly, this new version of the cycle is slightly gentler and more inner-directed. And yes, that intensified intimacy, gradually unfolding, serves the concept of a character who is trapped in his own head. Some listeners, though, will be content to call this the most poetic portrait yet heard of Schubert’s young swain.  —David J. Baker 



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