Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside have already recorded Schwanengesang (on the Delphian label), their Winterreise is in the offing, and this Chandos recording of Die schöne Müllerin presents the first of Schubert’s big-three song-cycles.
Some singers (Florian Boesch, for example) put the lovelorn miller-boy on the analyst’s couch for some intense therapy. Williams and Burnside take a simpler, not so overwrought route through the poor lad’s ill-advised, self-absorbed and self-deluding fixation on the fair young miller-girl, and their approach flatters Wilhelm Müller’s poems, as does their inclination towards word-friendly tempos.
From Williams’s blithe and cocky way with the opening ‘Das Wandern’, the singer skilfully negotiates all the detail of character and mood with the sort of awareness that has the listener almost begging the young man not to throw his heart away on the flighty girl. Williams is also just as skilful in registering the progress of the miller’s self-imposed infatuation without over-dramatising it.
The Chandos recording is ideally sensitive to the openness in Williams’s youthful baritone, which can shift eloquently both to a disarming clarity in his middle register to a haunted, veiled quality; he charts the miller’s minute dissection of ‘she-loves-me, she-loves-me-not’-type observations with deadly accuracy, and in his higher voice his light, flexible vibrato is immensely expressive.
All this works powerfully in the pivotal songs, from ‘Pause’ (XII) to ‘Die böse Farbe’ (XVII), in which he teases out the millers amazement, jealousy and loss with unswerving insight, and the intertwining imagery of fate, flowing water and the colour green reveal how thoroughly both artists have understood the cycle’s poetic and emotional arch, gathering to a quietly devastating close.
Burnside’s role at the piano is equally subtle, as he makes the distinction between confrontation and reflection with artless directness, and the recording ensures that the piano’s retreats never sound artificial. The listener is increasingly drawn in by Burnside’s suggestions of collusion with, bucking-up of, and tenderness for, his hopelessly thin-skinned, ultra-romantic anti-hero.
The Williams-Burnside duo is seriously sympathetic, with the sort of imagination that ensures there is something new to hear after many hearings of this fine release. The booklet includes texts and translations.