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Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall
11 Jul 2017

Die schöne Müllerin: Davies and Drake provoke fresh thoughts at Middle Temple Hall

Schubert wrote Die schöne Müllerin (1824) for a tenor (or soprano) range - that of his own voice. Wilhelm Müller’s poems depict the youthful unsophistication of a country lad who, wandering with carefree unworldliness besides a burbling stream, comes upon a watermill, espies the miller’s fetching daughter and promptly falls in love - only to be disillusioned when she spurns him for a virile hunter. So, perhaps the tenor voice possesses the requisite combination of lightness and yearning to convey this trajectory from guileless innocence to disenchantment and dejection.

Iestyn Davies and Julius Drake, Middle Temple Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Iestyn Davies

Photo credit: Askonas Holt


But, Schubert dedicated Die schöne Müllerin to the amateur singer, Baron Karl Freiherr von Schönstein. Schönstein was a baritone, as was Michael Vogl who was regularly accompanied by Schubert in performances of the composer’s lieder, and who, in 1830, wrote vocal embellishments for an edition of the cycle by Anton Diabelli - a publication which reveals much about how Vogl might have actually performed these songs with Schubert. Certainly, there is ample precedent for baritones past and present, including Fischer-Dieskau who recorded the cycle three times, and even contraltos such as Nathalie Stutzmann , performing Schubert’s twenty Müller settings, transposed to a lower range.

Even so, countertenor Iestyn Davies’ recital with Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall was an intriguing prospect. A search for previous performances of the cycle by countertenors unearthed a 1997 recording by Jochen Kowalski for Capriccio and some performances in Germany during the late 1990s by Austrian countertenor Bernhard Landauer (who has also sung Winterreise). Davies and Drake essentially performed the Bärenreiter edition for low voice (transposed down a fourth), but they made half a dozen or so substitutions of individual songs, presumably to better accommodate Davies’ range or because some songs sit awkwardly in particular keys.

In the opening songs, the clear tone and freshness of Davies’ countertenor bestowed some dramatic advantages, capturing the young man’s lightness of spirit as he embarks on his journey with optimism and a spring in his step, sure that fortune and love lie ahead. Davies seemed to deliberately aim for an almost airy lightness, though even as early as the second song, ‘Wohin?’ (Where to?), there was the slightest hint of anxious urgency as the wanderer questions the babbling brook where it is leading him. But, when the vocal line rose - as in the song’s closing vision of the mill-wheels turning in every clear stream (‘Es gehn ja Mühlenräder/In jedem klaren Bach!’) - there was a flash of translucency as pure as the cleanest spring-waters.

Countering this lucid wholesomeness, though, was an occasional lack of fullness and weight to the tone, in the lower register, which deprived some of the songs of their impetuous drive. ‘Halt!’, for example, needed a more pressing dynamism, while in ‘Mein!’ (Mine) Davies struggled to compete with the unremitting energy of the piano part as he asserted, with almost desperate fervour, that the girl was his. Again, only when the voice rose - ‘Die geliebte Müllerin ist mein!’ - did we sense the young man’s joyful triumphalism; the equivalent of a vocal punching of the air.

In some of the strophic songs there was a lack of variety in the vocal colour, too. And, while Davies worked hard with the text, the words sometimes didn’t make their mark against busy accompaniments - despite Drake’s sterling efforts to rein in the rapid, low passagework. In ‘Jäger’ (The hunter), the voice seemed to be struggling to chase the piano’s incessant, dry triplets and the text was lost, while in ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ (Jealousy and pride), which followed segue, the bitter repetitions of ‘sag ihr’ (tell her) were swallowed by the piano’s racing rage in the bass.

However, these minor misgivings which were more than outweighed by the imaginative psychological portrait that Davies and Drake created, and by the convincing coherence of the narrative arc of the sequence. The tragic peak was not reached too early. It was only when the young lass got up to leave the miller in the final stanza of ‘Tränenregen’ (Rain of tears) - after Davies had conjured a melting introspection as the miller becomes absorbed in the brook’s reflection of his loved one’s eyes - that there was a slight hardening of the vocal tone which, together with the minor key coloration in the accompaniment, hinted at future rejection. A tense hiatus before the twelfth song, ‘Pause’, painfully undermined the apparent self-belief of ‘Mein!’; there followed an accumulating dynamism, before the recognition, despair and resignation of the closing songs.

And, even ‘weaknesses’ could be used to advantage, as at the close of ‘Am Feierabend’ (When work is over) where the mill-owner’s dismissal of his workforce lacked the forcefulness of the miller’s recollection of the mill-girl’s evening farewell, thereby conveying the young man’s own lack of masculine maturity. Similarly, the two speakers in the mournful, stalling ‘waltz’, ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ (The miller and the brook), may not have been strongly differentiated vocally but there was a convincing rhythmic contrast between the floating lilt of the miller’s dolefulness and silken dreams of the cool peace of dark waters, and the brook’s more energetic realism.

Davies was at his best in the slower, simpler settings, where he crafted his beautiful countertenor into unbroken legato lines of soft sweetness. In ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (Thanksgiving to the brook) there was, beguilingly, also a sense of incipient strength beneath the unruffled surface, as the miller saw hope in the sun’s brightness. ‘Der Neugierige’ (The inquisitive one) had the rhetorical pathos - ‘Sag, Bächlein, liebt sie mich?’ (Tell me, brooklet, does she love me?) - of the most bittersweet Elizabethan lute song. In ‘Morgengruß’ (Morning greeting), the rising sixth which commences each stanza shone with innocent idealisation while the falling vocal resolutions of the miller’s hesitant questions and the slightest withdrawal of the piano cadences captured the fragility of his dreams and trembling disturbance of his fears.

For all the ambiguities, though, the cycle is anchored by the constancy of the brook’s presence, and Drake expertly conjured the stream’s changing moods: from cheerful babbling, to angry churning, to - in the final song - soothing relief. The position of the piano part is quite low, even before transposition, and Drake’s skill and sensitivity in overcoming the challenges that this low tessitura presents - the danger of ‘muddiness’, the elusiveness of true pianissimo - was remarkable: the touch was unfailingly gentle but never at the expense of clarity and detail.

In the second half of the cycle, Davies’ countertenor became richer and more focused, evoking the growing strength of the miller’s emotional uncertainty. This anxiety was powerfully expressed at the close of the penultimate stanza of ‘Pause’ where, having hung up his lute the miller fears that its strings - whose music he can no longer bear, so full is his heart - will be brushed by a breeze, or a bee: ‘Da wird mir so bange und es durchschauert mich’ (I shall feel afraid and shudder). Davies left the fermata hanging, the pain of the lingering silence finding expression in the bitter harmonic dissonances of the final stanza, and the poignant major-minor twists of the piano’s postlude.

In these latter songs, and particularly in the final three songs, Davies’ miller seemed much more than an embodiment of Romantic Sehnsucht, as one finds expressed by the deathly inertia of ‘Trockne Blumen’ (Withered flowers) and the song’s closing expression of the Romantic faith that true love can find fulfilment only in death. Instead, it was the modernity of Die Schöne Müllerin which Davies and Drake made captivatingly evident: the restlessness of a disturbed, perhaps delusional, young man who veers between defiant hope and suicidal torment - a restlessness which is enhanced by the fragmentation of the narrative, which offers only brief, subjective glimpses of an imagined external world.

And, this sense of disjuncture was enhanced by what initially seemed unsatisfying - the frequent large distance between Davies’ countertenor line and the low-lying piano accompaniment. As the cycle progressed this literal distance increasingly conveyed a psychological schism - as in ‘Pause’, when the piano repeats well-defined rhythmic motifs against which the voice drifts in self-absorbed musing. The contrast between the vocal leaps in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (The beloved colour) and the piano’s middle-voiced repeating note, together with the harmonic changefulness of ‘Die böse Farbe’ (The evil colour) spoke of the miller’s instability and ensuing delusion. It is the brook’s own voice that speaks at the close of the cycle, but here it might have been the voice of the protagonist himself, lost in his own delirium.

Schubert composed Die schöne Müllerin under the shadows of despair. He had contracted syphilis, probably at the end of 1822. Seriously ill, he was admitted to hospital in May 1823, and it was in that month that he wrote the poem, ‘My Prayer’, which contains the lines:

Behold, brought to nothing in the dust,
a prey to unheard-of-grief,
the pilgrimage of pain that is my life nears its everlasting end.
Destroy it and all I am;
cast everything into Lethe's depths;
and then, Almighty,
let a new being thrive in purity and strength.

[ Sich, vernichtet liegt im Staube,
Unerhortem Gram zum Raube,
Meines Lebens Martergang Nahend ew’gem Untergang.
Todt’ es und mich selbe todte,
Sturz’ nun Alles in die Lethe,
Und ein reines kraft’ges Sein,
Lass’, o Grosser, dann gedeih'n.

In this thought-provoking recital, the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ (The brook’s lullaby), seemed infused with a like grief for the loss of innocence. This miller was not a would-be Romantic hero whom we might both indulge and pity for his naivety and foolishness; rather his misconceptions, self-deception and disenchantment seemed truly tragic.

Claire Seymour

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin Op.25 D. 795
Texts by Wilhelm Müller

Temple Music Song, Middle Temple Hall, London; Monday 10th July 2017.

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