A Fine and Insightful Performance of Die schöne Müllerin

25/05/2017

Chipping Campden Music Festival [1] – Schubert: Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano). St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 24.5.2017. (JQ)

Chipping

Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin, D795

In the sixteen years since Charlie Bennett established the Chipping Campden Music Festival a substantial number of notable artists have appeared there, often returning. It came as a mild surprise, therefore, to discover that this concert marked the festival debuts of both Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside.

In a warmly relaxed short address before singing Roderick Williams told us that this concert was part of the three-year project which began in 2015, during which these two artists will perform the two great Schubert song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise as well as the posthumous collection Schwanengesang. This is all leading up to performances in London in 2018. Williams is such an established and highly regarded recitalist that it was something of a surprise to learn that before, as he put it, the “glove [was] thrown on the floor”, challenging him to take on this project, these Schubert masterpieces were not in his repertoire. The process of memorising all these songs is a huge task, particularly when undertaken alongside other commitments, and he admitted, with disarming candour, that the words of the twenty songs that comprise Die schöne Müllerin are not yet quite lodged in his memory even though he and Burnside have been performing them together for a while now. As a consequence he sang tonight from a copy – and why not? I should say at once that fact that he held a copy in his right hand made absolutely no difference as far as I was concerned. He glanced at the copy – no more than that – from time to time but the strong direct communication with his audience that I’ve experienced many times before from this singer in recital was not compromised in the slightest.

One of the many challenges that confronts a singer essaying Die schöne Müllerin is the large number of strophic songs that it contains. It can be difficult to introduce variety between individual stanzas without exaggeration. I thought Roderick Williams was conspicuously successful in this respect. Time and again there were subtle little instances of differentiation between the delivery of stanzas; thus there was constant interest and the listener could take nothing for granted. Another aspect which impressed me strongly was the way in which both singer and pianist used the timing of a phrase or even a note – or in Burnside’s case a chord – to illuminate the music and the story that was being told. All of this was subtle but it was telling and it evidenced a deep understanding not just of Schubert’s music but also of Wilhelm Müller’s poetry.

Above all, though, the success of this rendition of Schubert’s cycle, apart from technical excellence by both artists, was Williams’ ability to tell the story. This he did in a convincing and wholly natural way as we followed Müller’s young man on his emotional journey. He consistently drew the listener in through the engaging nature of his singing and also through the stagecraft of facial expressions and left-hand gestures, none of which were overdone.

So we witnessed a confident, carefree opening (‘Das Wandern’).  Later, in ‘Am Feierabend’ the different voices – those of the Miller and his Daughter as well as that of the narrator – were judged to perfection. The happy eagerness of ‘Ungeduld’ was convincingly depicted and I loved the light, easy charm in ‘Morgengruß’ and ‘Des Müllers Blumen’.  There was confident elation in ‘Mein!’. The young man believes he’s successfully gained the affection of the Miller’s Daughter and we shared his happiness – for a brief moment.

Rightly, a harder edge was introduced by both Williams and Burnside for ‘Der Jäger’ I thought they judged the pace of this song perfectly. It needs to have urgency but if it’s taken too fast the words can become gabbled. That didn’t happen here but we still knew that a darker element had been introduced. Here, and in the following ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’, Williams’ narrative skills were well to the fore.

From this point on the young man’s fortunes head rapidly downhill. Both performers conveyed the pathos of ‘Die liebe Farbe’ expertly. The deep melancholy of ‘Trockne Blumen’ was expertly judged, which is to say that there was never any danger of the music becoming maudlin. Nonetheless, we could – and did – feel for the thwarted, despairing young man and at the same time we could admire the exemplary technical control with which the music was delivered.

In the last two songs Williams conveyed gentle pathos in a very natural, unaffected way yet we were no less moved by the tragedy of the young man. His velvet tone and seamless legato, so frequently heard during many of the preceding songs, were admirably suited to Schubert’s exquisitely poignant major/minor shifts in ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ while ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ was gently consoling.

This was a marvellous account of Die schöne Müllerin. Roderick Williams has an ideal voice for Schubert. There’s firmness to his tone and so at the moments of crisis he was able to depict the young man’s determination or anguish – and the menace of the huntsman. Yet his timbre is sufficiently light and the voice is produced so evenly that there’s never a hint of unwanted heaviness.  Wilhelm Müller’s hero is, we believe, a good few years younger than Roderick Williams’ physical age yet the voice we heard was not at all out of keeping with the character of a young man. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when discussing a Lieder recital the focus is on the singer but that’s unfortunate since Iain Burnside’s contribution to the success of this performance was that of a genuine partner. Time and again I admired his touch and he was ‘with’ his singer at all times. Best of all, he frequently gave us examples of the subtle, idiomatic use of rubato that marks out the genuine Schubert pianist.

After this fine and insightful performance I’m keen to hear Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside in Winterreise and Schwanengesang.

 John Quinn

For more about the Festival visit http://campdenmusicfestival.co.uk/.

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