The Pros and Cons of Michael Schade’s Die schöne Müllerin

AustriaAustria Salzburg Festival (6) – Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin: Michael Schade (tenor), Rudolf Buchbinder (piano). Haus für Mozart, Salzburg, 24.8.2013 (MB)

 Michael Schade’s tenor, especially at this stage in his career, would have to be reckoned something of an acquired taste. His is not a beautiful sound, but the problem goes beyond that; I am not sure that I have heard anyone sing so great a proportion of a recital in his head voice, with a generous helping of quasi-falsetto. That said, he was evidently concerned to recount a narrative, and was dramatically engaged throughout. One probably had to ‘make allowances’, but ultimately there was something moving to his performance as a whole. Likewise Rudolf Buchbinder’s Schubert proved short on charm, even at times on sensitivity. Yet, if one put oneself in the right frame of mind, of receptivity, there were insights to be gleaned.

For instance, the muscular, almost Beethovenian playing with which ‘Das Wandern’ opened may or may not have been apposite, but it certainly had me thinking about the text and possible readings. The lack of sentimentality from both performers here was to a certain degree refreshing, and the way in which both moved to a (relative) hush in the final two stanzas was far from unconvincing. Buchbinder’s accents in ‘Halt!’ might have been closer to what one might have expected, once again, in Beethoven, but the creaking of the mill wheel could also be discerned. Moreover, the instrumental inevitability he imparted to the following ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ offered a strong impression of fatalism to the story’s development, even at this early stage. If only Schade had been more restrained there – and elsewhere – in his use of head voice, though his dramatic faltering in ‘Am Feierabend’ certainly grabbed the attention. The ghostliness and defiance of the final two lines, in which the maiden wishes us all good night, looked forward to ‘Der Doppelgänger’. The quasi-operatic delivery of ‘Ungeduld’, however, seemed misconceived; Schubert’s ‘drama’ is not the same as Verdi’s, still less that of Verdi with a distinctly non-Verdian voice

The Träumerei  of ‘Morgengruß’ was both rapt and apt if one could pass beyond the flawed vocalism – which I could, just about. Greater contrast, from both musicians, however, would have benefited the songs that followed, though ‘Pause’ possessed an undeniable dignity. Sanity was already hanging by a thread, if that, in ‘Der Jäger’. Too much? Perhaps, but as I said above, story-telling, and indeed its explication, were priorities for Schade, and laudable ones at that. Moreover, his vocal plangency in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ truly came into its own. Buchbinder’s ‘simple’ voicing of Schubert’s chords in ‘Trockne Blumen’ was, if short on atmosphere, as generally understood, of a starkness that, perhaps even despite itself, had one rethink one’s response. And if ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ seemed too vocally hysterical even for Winterreise, let alone Die schöne Müllerin, the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ proved a beautiful, cruel lullaby; the unexaggerated quality of Buchbinder’s postlude was certainly not without eloquence.

I am not sure that encores are ever appropriate following this cycle. Certainly Der Musensohn and a very odd, quite misconceived, performance of Die Forelle felt at best unnecessary. Without dwelling unduly on the latter, I shall simply remark that, in Schade’s performance, it served up what must have been the campest trout to have been fished for a good many years.

Mark Berry