Double play

Schubert: Die schone Mullerin Ian Bostridge (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano), with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Hyperion CDJ 33025)

In his extraordinarily comprehensive liner notes (a virtual essay on each and every song), Graham Johnson describes Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as one of the fathers of Hyperion's Schubert song edition. Godfather, more like. His influence across the whole spectrum of lieder and lieder- singing is incalculable. And his participation (not, alas, as singer, I hasten to add) in this novel rendition of Die schone Mullerin will I'm sure be seen - and rightly so - as an endorsement of the young and very talented artist it showcases. As Muller, the poet, Fischer-Dieskau effectively introduces Ian Bostridge's hapless miller boy, offering an apologia before and after the main body of the work, as well as atmospheric recitations of poems that Schubert chose not to set. It's a telling juxtaposition: the voice of experience - weathered, worldly, all-knowing - shadowing Bostridge's shyly obsessive youth.

Bostridge really sounds the part. It's the clear, open timbre - fresh but not gauche, sweet but not cloying. It has "lyric" written all over it, a quality of truthfulness and - dare I use that unfashionable word - sincerity. It's infinitely flexible, too, ornamentations deftly tripping off the vocal cords. But most affecting is his way with text - sense, sensibility before "drama". He doesn't over-paint words; the feeling dictates the weight, the colour. You, the listener, feel rather than hear his change of heart between the fourth and fifth songs - Halt! and Danksagung an den Bach: it's hard to define a quality, but the voice is suddenly filled with desire, the obsession has begun. In Der Neugierige ("The Inquisitive One" - and that's another endearing characteristic of Bostridge's voice - inquisitiveness), the words "yes" and "no" (she loves me, she loves me not) mean "the whole world" to him: so note how he fills the word "ganze" ("whole"). Then the refrain "Dein ist mein Herz" ("My heart is yours") from Ungeduld - a real proclamation to be shouted from the rooftops, in marked contrast to his touching address Morgengruss or the distillation of Pause, where even one listener is too many, a violation of his privacy. There is a tragic dignity about Die liebe Farbe, a profound sense of loss conveyed in the gradual draining of colour. Bostridge has that rare ability both to respect the simplicity of the line and yet somehow to enrich it, elevate it. Drama is more often than not to be found in the rhythm and articulation - the contemptuous consonants, for instance, of Der Jager and Eifersucht und Stolz.

But you'll have got the picture by now. Bostridge has a great future. I wish I could say you read it here first, but that view is already pretty widespread. As ever, Graham Johnson's pianistic insights are as plentiful, as subtle, as penetrating as his documentation. Another marvellous disc in an eminently collectable series. ES

Die schone Mullerin with a narrator? Not exactly. When Schubert set Wilhelm Muller's cycle of poems to music, he left out five of them, and there was another, "An unrhymed song", which Muller himself thought better of including. There is absolutely no historical justification for putting them back, as Graham Johnson admits in his generous and fascinating notes; but it's worth hearing the cycle at least once with Muller's original prologue and epilogue, especially when it's so beautifully read by one of the song-cycle's great interpreters.

Anyway, you can easily edit out the readings if you want to experience the cycle as Schubert intended - in which case you are in for something rather special. Ian Bostridge may be one of the best things to happen to British lieder-singing in quite a while. This is no identikit English tenor: the voice may be light and sweet, but the expression is compelling. Bostridge's identification with the texts is remarkable. His interpretation is full of insight - yes, as Johnson says, there is something decidedly odd about the miller boy. Does his courtship with the beautiful maid of the mill take place in the real world at all, or is it pure fantasy? The contrasts in mood are startling; in Der Jager, the macho huntsman-suitor of the title invades the cycle, all the more of a wrench after the ideal, almost courtly devotion of Mit dem grunen Lautenband. But the sense of sequence is inescapable, too - the poor boy may not realise it, but if you put real people on pedestals, sooner or later they fall with a crash.

But let's not give Bostridge all the credit. Graham Johnson's accompaniment may be almost ideally discreet, but the insights he brings to the piano- writing are invaluable - the deliciously suggestive pointing of the opening phrases in Der Neugierige or the quiet, ominous pulsing of the repeated F sharp in Die liebe Farbe. The recordings make sure we miss nothing. A first-class addition to Hyperion's first-class Schubert cycle. SJ

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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