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The Pretty Miller-Maid and the Brook

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Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, M. Goerne, C. Eschenbach
(Harmonia Mundi, 2009)

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Schubert, Die schöne Müllerin, M. Goerne, E. Schneider
(Decca, 2002)

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S. Youens, Schubert, Müller, and Die schöne Müllerin
Matthias Goerne is back in town this week, for concerts with the National Symphony Orchestra. As the German baritone did during his 2012 visit, he teamed up with Christophe Eschenbach, as pianist, to perform a Schubert song cycle. Then it was a rather bleak, unhinged Winterreise, and on Monday night the duo performed Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, a cycle that they recorded for Harmonia Mundi a few years ago. Unlike that Winterreise two years ago, where Goerne sounded a little bit under the weather, he was in splendid voice last night, able to roar with the manic obsessions of the narrator, as well as croon his secret yearnings and delusions.

This cycle, about a wandering young man who takes a job at a mill along a stream somewhere, has been analyzed endlessly, by pianist Graham Johnson and scholar Susan Youens, among many others. Schubert took the poetry by Wilhelm Müller and, merely by omitting some poems, gave it a rather different spin. Most notably, Schubert's music makes the brook, which babbles to the young man and ultimately sings a lullaby to him as he drowns under its waves, into one of the major characters. From our era, with a more scientific understanding of mental illness, it is easy to imagine the narrator as a young adult who has started to manifest symptoms of schizophrenia, hearing voices, becoming paranoid and unpredictable, and gradually losing touch with reality. All through the course of these twenty songs, with an arresting narrative sense and exquisite German diction, Goerne seemed in dialogue with the sounds of the river coming forth from Eschenbach's piano. The language of music, which can suggest but not signify, is in this context a brilliant way to incarnate the "speech" that only the afflicted young man can understand. Goerne's tendency to lean under the lid of the piano even suggested the fantasy of climbing into a grave, which the narrator dreams about at one point, with the shape of the grand piano suggesting that of a coffin.

Eschenbach excels as an accompanist for someone like Goerne, always willing to follow his singer into any stray alley, accommodate every hesitation and strange tempo choice (helping make no. 6, "The Questioner," for example, into a truly odd, recitative-like experience), if not always with every detail of the more demanding songs quite in line. At the same time, Eschenbach brought out many elements in the accompaniment that were new to my ears, like the sense of bells tolling the end of the work day in no. 4 (Giving thanks to the brook) or the brook's rippling in no. 10 merging or overlapping with the idea of the beloved woman in the narrator's mind.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Goerne, Eschenbach offer searing, ravishing Schubert cycle (Washington Post, January 29)

Philip Kennicott, Matthias Goerne sings Schubert (, January 27)

Lawrence A. Johnson, Goerne and Eschenbach deliver memorable Schubert journey (Chicago Classical Review, January 20)
Schubert first published this cycle in higher keys, and it has always sounded most successful to me when sung by a tenor, but Goerne sold me on the idea of a baritone singing it, because he used the growling power of his voice to communicate the narrator's mind becoming unhinged, as he perseverated on certain delusions, again revealing new facets of the cycle, and because he used the high, sweet head voice in many other places, keeping that sense of the moony dreamer, exquisitely so in no. 18 ("Withered flowers"). The performers introduced long pauses into certain songs, silences in which part of the storytelling transpired on Goerne's face and body, and in other places ran the songs together with no break at all, creating the sense of a disordered mind juxtaposing many moods. The only misstep in this performance was the glacial tempo of the final song, the brook's lullaby, which missed the chance to hit a dramatic home run, drawing out the conclusion of the cycle until it came close to stagnating. It did not make the overall experience anything less than intense, but it seemed to have left some of the possible intensity on the table.

Matthias Goerne and Michelle DeYoung will be reunited this week, for performances of Hindemith's When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd with the National Symphony Orchestra (January 30 to February 1).

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