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Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin - Christian Gerhaher, Gerold Huber

Winner of the Diapason d'or 2018 (Lied). It has all the makings of a TV movie or an airport novel: a young man falls head over heels in love, but to no avail. The object of his affection simply prefers someone else and gives the young man the cold shoulder. Suffering bitterly, he sees only one avenue of escape: suicide. No, it’s not the tale of Goethe’s Werther. In fact, it’s not a novel at all, but a short story in verse that became world-famous under the title ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ (‘The Fair Miller-Maid’). The poet of this cycle, Wilhelm Müller, remains for the most part unknown, but Franz Schubert’s musical setting has long been established in concert halls all over the world.Read more…

For Christian Gerhaher, Schubert is the “inventor” per se of German Romantic song – the Lied. He first recorded Schubert’s song cycle 14 years ago when he was still a young baritone known at most to aficionados. Now he’s an internationally acclaimed star, and if he approaches ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ once again, with his longstanding accompanist Gerold Huber, it’s not simply for decorative reasons. After all, his view of the cycle has changed: today he’s all the more focused on its narrative character and its storyline. Unlike ‘Die Winterreise’ or Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’, ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ is perhaps the only great song cycle with a self-contained plot. “That’s why we decided to include the five Wilhelm Müller poems that Schubert left out,” Gerhaher explains, “but we do it in recitation.” As a result, this new recording, rather than opening with the merry “Das Wandern”, begins with a spoken prologue, “Der Dichter”, framed at the end with “Epilog”. These two poems have a jarringly different inflection, projecting what Gerhaher calls an “irony bordering on sarcasm”.

The very title, ‘Die schöne Müllerin’, gives us a false impression. What seems at first glance to resemble a pretty idyll from the Biedermeier period – especially at the opening of the cycle – turns out to be a story with a dark side. The babbling of the brook, “so fresh and wondrous bright”, proves in retrospect to be a harbinger of death, an eternal resting place for the world-weary lover, and thus a bridge to the Hereafter. It’s obvious that Müller, and Schubert as well, were concerned with more than recounting the story of an unhappy infatuation. Gerhaher sees the cycle as a “fully elaborated psychopathological portrait” of a young man “who is more in love with the idea of love than with love itself, much less with a lover. He conveys the picture of a man who develops his views entirely from within his own brain.”

By reciting the poems himself, Gerhaher draws on a 19th-century tradition. After all, poetry readings alternated with music as a matter of course in Vienna’s Schubertiades. This new recording of ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ thus connects the past with the present. Its message is just as relevant today as it was in the age of Wilhelm Müller and Franz Schubert.

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