Die schöne Müllerin, d795. Piano Works (Rogers, Burnett)

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, d795. Piano Works. Nigel Rogers (tenor), Richard Burnett (early piano). Telefunken


There are already on record about thirty Beautiful Maids on the Hill, and some are pretty run of the mill. But there may well be a good case for a new box; this masterpiece has so many facets that any fresh light on it would be welcome and rewarding. It was written when Schubert was mortally ill, and (given his own nature and that of his illness) he must have reflected deeply on the links between life, love and death. The music wells up from poignant depths which have not yet been fully sounded – not even by the justly acclaimed Pears/Britten version (Decca SXL2200, 6/60).

     This seems to have been the authorised version for the present duo, who even adopt its textual idiosyncrasies (why “pflanz’ ich” in the fourth bar of Des Müllers Blumen  second verse, why the ties in the penultimate bar of the prelude and postlude of Pause?). Such echoes augur ill for the independent personal approach and commitment that are needed above all in Lied interpretation, and arguably in this song-cycle above all others. There ace other points of detail one might cavil at, such as the rallentandi - even in the postlude of Der Müller und der Bach, where the brook is if anything being asked to work overtime, not go slow.

     The main disappointment however is the general lack of immediacy. This may be partly an acoustic effect. The contemporary instrument certainly conveys a sense of period authenticity; but there are countervailing drawbacks. First, the music sounds as though performed in the original keys but a lower pitch, as if the piano were a transposing instrument (perhaps this is catching – Sides 2 and 3 are wrongly labelled on my copy). No doubt the sound is authentic enough; but ears attuned to modern concert pitch may well experience a corresponding slackening of tension. The voice-keyboard balance may also dull the edge of perception; the Hammerflügel as recorded here lacks the sustained tone needed to underline such points as the significance of the two voices heard duetting in canon in Morgengruss.

     There is some compensations in the interesting pedal and other effects judiciously used by Richard Burnett to colour and shade the accompaniment. But his best moments are achieved when he persuades the music to speak for itself independently of such devices, as in his eloquent prelude to Die böse Farbe. Nigel Rogers too has some admirable and even memorable moments, as in Eifersucht und Stolz, where the sense of the words is projected as vividly as the sound of the melody. But in general, despite much that is eminently musicianly, one misses the dual impression of surface sparkle and deep sustained impetus which ought to animate this cycle like the millstream that provides its motive power. Schubert's typical river-music symbolises young life in two main aspects — a feeling of freshness and immediacy, a sense of purpose and destiny; and these elements seemed all too rarely manifest.

     The fourth side is filled with dance music, presumably to let the Hammerflügel show its paces. But the dances selected seem out of step with Die schöne Müllerin, by whose side they tend to sound rather flat-footed; and again there are some textual puzzles, e.g. are not the Komische Ländler really violin music? Here too however the performance can come to vivid life in some very musical moments when timbre and nuance alike convey the conviviality of the Schubert circle, with its engaging blend of boisterousness and sensitivity. Yet these works, now as then, will appeal mainly to admirers and devotees. So both of the two courses on offer will cater for very different tastes; and despite the agreeable period flavour and the wholesome quality they are hardly appetising enough to count as a real treat.


© gramophone, Jan. 1976 (p. 1226)