Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber first recorded Die schöne Müllerin fifteen years ago. Gerhaher is now in his late-forties and, recorded with palpable intimacy by Sony Classical, has all the expressive and imaginative musicianship you could ever desire in Schubert. As he has done in recital, Gerhaher recites the poems from Wilhelm Müller’s cycle that Schubert didn’t set, which has the advantage of not only establishing the framing device of the poet’s own narrative but also gives us more information about the schöne Müllerin herself. Gerhaher’s reading is as confidential and conversational as his singing, and the spoken-word episodes do not impede the arc of the settings.
The release’s cover of Gerhaher has a haunting poetry of its own, that without any stretch of the imagination speaks directly both to the singer and the songs. The cycle, about the travelling miller who falls in love – or thinks he does – with the fair maid of the mill, subverts the innocent imagery of early-nineteenth-century romanticism, and Gerhaher’s exceptional gift is that he can both narrate the story and identify with and become this strange young man who grows increasingly fragile and delusional as the narrative unfolds. The clinching triumph of his account, though, is that every insight the listener might bring to the work is expanded by Gerhaher, who, needless to say, has an abundance of his own – the man’s skewed logic and epic self-centredness, which cannot cope with reality, and the implosion when reality in the rival form of the huntsman checks in – the sort of warped thinking that confuses self and truth.
Gerhaher effortlessly, almost artlessly, suggests all this and more, and the effect is irresistibly involving, achieved without a hint of irony or judgment but with a great deal of human warmth and understanding. Once you start listening out for grades of nuance, those flashes of tenderness and abrasiveness, the variety in his soft register, the perceptions just proliferate, and with Huber floating the music’s layers of imagery with equally profound artistry – listen to what he does with the piano parts of the brook-related songs – the brook that leads the poor miller to his ruin – and marvel at the breadth of this wonderful performance. Texts and translations are included in the booklet.