SCHUBERT Die schöne Müllerin (Gerhaher)
While Christian Gerhaher’s 2003 recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin doesn’t have English translations of the poem texts (RCA, 2/04), the new remake wouldn’t be without them – and then some – with its unusual concentration on how the Wilhelm Müller poems are part of the package. In his excellent booklet essay ‘To whom does the Fair Maid of the Mill belong?’ Gerhaher points out that the composer creates only the last of many layers, not just in an individual Lied but in a cycle that has such a strong narrative. In fact, the booklet is one reason to go for the physical disc rather than a download, and is an essential guide to knowing what he’s after in this performance.
Though Gerhaher wraps his voice around Schubert’s heartier vocal lines more comfortably than in his 2003 recording (though lacking the suaveness of Florian Boesch – Onyx, 4/14), the unaided ear could assume that that Gerhaher wasn’t in his best voice for this recording with his longtime collaborator Gerold Huber. On closer listen, he is living in the world of the poems selflessly. Only flashes of the virile baritone sound are heard. As Gerhaher points out in his notes, the cycle’s protagonist, sometimes called ‘the Miller’, is actually an apprentice. In contrast to the deeper, even bored-sounding tone of the Miller who is his boss, the apprentice has
a pale, low-vibrato sound whose most private voice, heard in ‘Morgengruss’ and ‘Tränenregen’, conveys the character’s chronic uncertainty, shyness and perhaps self-manufactured heartbreak. In more emotionally animated moments of ‘Der Jäger’ and ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’, Gerhaher could easily have gone Wagnerian but instead delivers a somewhat strident,
nasal sound that fits this unheroic figure. Clearly, an interpretation this personal could only work in a recording studio, if only because such subtlety wouldn’t project in the concert hall.
Gerhaher also elects to recite the sections of Müller that Schubert dropped, including a prelude and epilogue plus a few poems within the cycle itself, the recitations giving the ear a brief intermission in what is a fairly long haul of 20 songs. The conclusion is that both composer and poet were right. Müller successfully rounded out his story; Schubert smartly streamlined it. And if this is the process through which Gerhaher arrived at his singular inside-out view of Die schöne Müllerin, I must respect it. Gerhaher is often so inside the character that each phrase feels loaded with meaning without sounding overloaded in the manner of late-period Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau or self-conscious in the linguistically meticulous manner of Ian Bostridge. The biggest dividend to Gerhaher’s approach is any number of moments where you feel part of the protagonist’s thought process, as he hatches ideas on the spot. How often does that happen?