Christopher Maltman & Graham Johnson at Wigmore Hall – Die schöne Müllerin

Die schöne Müllerin, D795

Christopher Maltman (baritone) & Graham Johnson (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 2 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

At just over an hour in length, “Die schöne Müllerin” made an ideal choice for this BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert and received a highly descriptive and unmannered performance.

Christopher Maltman. ©Levon Biss Christopher Maltman told the story with an almost complete lack of fuss, revealing the beautiful simplicity of Schubert’s songwriting in such a way as to make each statement or observation deeply poignant. Graham Johnson’s accompaniment only served to enhance this approach, adding touches of shade and colour. Dynamics were exquisitely shaded but never exaggerated, Johnson leaning just that little bit more on the fourth verse of ‘Das Wandern’ to portray the heavy mill-stones. In the third verse of ‘Morgengruss’ there was a rapt softness as Maltman sang of his subject’s “little, sleep-drunk eyes”), though there was a notably heightened volume and tension in the recitative passage during the fourth verse of ‘Pause’.

Graham JohnsonJohnson was especially poetic in his portrayal of the brook, something of an all-seeing observer, and the flowing accompaniment became even more effective in its pointing of the subtleties in the harmonic writing. With several songs uncertain even as they entered their last breath, still to choose between major and minor tonality, Johnson brought each change of mood into acute focus, whether in ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ or ‘Der Neugierige’, where a subtle pause introduced an extra element of doubt.

Throughout, Maltman enhanced the storytelling with persuasive body-language, getting to the heart of each song in the process. As the hunter appeared on the scene both singer and pianist became much more agitated, the breaks between songs virtually non-existent, with Maltman wringing his hands and gesturing as the Miller’s paranoia took hold. His unmannered and unhurried account bore fruit in the overall sound, with a rounded tone at fortissimo (the end of ‘Des Müllers Blumen’) or a soft, feathery pianissimo (‘Die liebe Farbe’). The cycle ended with an almost timeless ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, finding an awkward peace – the serenity was touching, the capacity audience completely silent.

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