SCHUBERT: Die schöne Müllerin
Ian Bostridge, tenor; Mitsuko Uchida, pianist
EMI CLASSICS 57827 (F) (DDD) TT: 63:48

Last September I reviewed Ian Bostridge’s new EMI Classics recording of Schubert’s Winterreise, his second (and last) song cycle on poems by Wilhelm Müller who predeceased the composer by one year. Bostridge’s accompanist for that astonishingly insightful performance was Leif Ove Andsnes. Now comes the first cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, composed four years earlier when Schubert had been diagnosed with and treated for syphillis – in this case 20 of Müller’s poems rather than 24 chosen for Die Winterreise, proofs of which Schubert was correcting when he died. This release contains an essay by Bostridge that demands reading by every aficionado of Schubert’s cycles (and is translated into German and French lest anyone miss his formidable insights). For example: “...[“Morgengrüss” is] a piece with the resonance of myth, which can play to the unconscious and draw on deep-seated notions of sexual fear, narcissism, a shying away from adulthood, even class antagonism.” Or, further on, “Schubert did make a very clear decision to remove the framing device of Wilhelm Müller’s poetic cycle, purging the work of ironic commentary, and of a piece with tinier but significant alterations he made to even classic literary texts which he set to music....”

Here Bostridge’s pianist is the sublime Mitsuko Uchida, who matches his vocal method and interpretative options with uncanny subtlety – which is not to say, however, that she cannot assert herself tonally or expressively where the music invites. Not everyone is going to react adoringly to the singer’s tonal lightness of voice (although it can darken in anger in a song like “Der Jäger”) or a certain sameness of tone that pervades the cycle. But this is also deliberately characterful – the hero is a youthful wandering miller, who experiences his first passion with his employer’s “beautiful daughter,” and whose heartbreak when she seems to favor the Hunter, altogether a coarser creature, is quintessentially poignant. There have been wandering young millers galore on disc, but Bostridge probes deeper than, say, that tenor paragon of the ‘60s, Fritz Wunderlich, too soon dead of a falling accident at age 36. I prefer the tenor voice in such a context as Bostridge presents the young miller, which is not to disavow longtime allegiance to baritones Olaf Bär, or Fischer-Dieskau (of the ‘50s, before he became a compulsive remaker of cherished repertoire, sometimes to advantage but more often not than when the voice was still beautifully sonorous).

Indubitably Bostridge is the 21st century’s Liedermeister to date, and no collection of Schubert’s two song cycles should be without his singular insights and vocal pointillism. Very much recommended, as Die Winterreise was last autumn.

R.D. (April 2005)