Die Schöne Müllerin

Die Schöne Müllerin, D795

James Gilchrist (tenor) & James Lisney (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 13 December, 2006
Venue: The Red Hedgehog, Highgate, London N6

There is something deeply contradictory that from the aptly named Wilhelm Müller’s almost embarrassingly faux naïf “Schöne Müllerin” poems Schubert should have fashioned a work which speaks to the core of our being and has the power to reduce an audience to prolonged silence. If Beethoven’s music is frequently a journey from darkness to light, Schubert’s often moves in precisely the opposite direction from initial joy, through elation, anger and resignation to the bleakest regions of utter despair.

This penultimate concert for 2006 of The Red Hedgehog’s opening season (which has included recitals by artists such as Peter Katin, Mikhail Kazakevich and Emma Kirkby) brought together the excellent pianist James Lisney and the equally excellent tenor James Gilchrist who started life as a Doctor but turned to music in 1996 and has since built a formidably extensive and eclectic repertoire ranging from Bach and Handel to contemporary music.

Prior to the concert Gilchrist spoke with the sort of forensic perception and insight perhaps only possible to a once-practising Doctor about the work’s psychological trajectory, the young man’s optimism at the cycle’s outset, his unrequited passion for the Müllerin, his living entirely in his own world and inability to perceive reality or relate to others, his elation when he convinces himself he has finally been accepted, his anger and jealousy when he realises that this is not the case, and the role of the brook as a commentator.

What was particularly impressive about this performance was the way in which the various ‘Wegweiser’ (way-stages) along the young man’s emotional journey from the joy of the opening song ‘Das Wandern’ to the despair and annihilation of ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ were so clearly delineated, whilst at the same time the raw emotion and desperation constantly just below the surface were never short-changed, the singer visibly living every moment. It might all have seemed affected or even histrionic but with this combination – Gilchrist’s high tenor and Lisney’s crisply detailed and under-pedalled piano both ideal for the work – there was never any doubt as to their complete sincerity. ‘Mein’, the work’s midpoint where the protagonist believes he has been accepted was a positive explosion of joy, whilst the closing song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ which acts as an epitaph, was truly hypnotic and resonated in the mind long after the last notes had died away.

As with Brigitte Fassbaender’s recording of “Winterreise”, it is possible to imagine the work more beautifully sung but seldom can it have been delivered with greater understanding.

  • James Lisney plays Schubert, including the B flat Sonata (D960), at The Red Hedgehog on Sunday 17 December 2006 at 4 o’clock
  • The Red Hedgehog
  • The Red Hedgehog is situated at 255-257 Archway Road, Highgate, London, N6 5BS
  • Box Office: 020 8348 5050

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