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Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin
Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Lewis (piano)
Recorded at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London (Sep 2009) – 69’25
harmonia mundi HMU 907519 – Booklet in English, French, German

Many of the issues I took with this duo's recording of Winterreise continue through this performance of Schubert's earlier song cycle. Though the discography for Die schöne Müllerin is not as impressively rich as for Winterreise, Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis still have an uphill battle ahead of them from the get go. harmonia mundi itself has an excellent recent release of the cycle by baritone Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach. If the buyer insists on a tenor voice, there are excellent, essential buys from Ian Bostridge (Hyperion) and, historically, Fritz Wunderlich (Deutsche Grammophon). With those three recordings making up the very tip of the iceberg, one searches in a newcomer for technical finesse, distinguished and personal musical insights and overall exemplary production values.

The recital simply doesn't get off to a good start. Lewis plays the mill-wheel figuration at the opening of "Das Wandern" with heavy hands, as if Schubert had marked it molto pesante. There is no fermata in the performance before the voice enters, but there is one in the score. Lewis doesn't even release the chord to allow breathing room for the voice. On the second verse, he suddenly pedals the figuration, perhaps to reflect the text ("Vom Wassmer habe wir's gelernt"), but the effect is obvious and verges on being crass. Bostridge and Johnson, by comparison, are in perfect sync here, and start their cycle cinematically, as if a camera is zooming in on the mill in progress and the motion momentarily stops while the miller starts narrating. There is no attempt on Lewis' part to emphasize the changes of mode that permeate the song cycle. In "Am Feierabend," the change to major at the mention of "die schöne Müllerin" is a non event. The marked swells in "Ungeduld" are inaudible.

Padmore has some very fine moments through the cycle. He floats effortlessly above the running brook in "Wohin?," eschews an impish, adolescent innocence in his voice in "Ungeduld," and achieves a wonderfully subtle but noticeable change of character at the opening of "Mit dem grünen Lautenbande." His tendency to take a breath wherever possible instead of only where necessary and musical, however, remains an annoyance to me, and at times his higher tessitura seems less secure, bold and confident than Bostridge, Goerne, Wunderlich, Fischer-Dieskau, and other frontrunners. "Dein is mein Herz" should be a moment of virility, triumph and assertion, but Padmore sings it with a curious tentativeness.

The final two songs of the cycle sum up the performance as a whole. "Der Müller und der Bach" is a good notch or two below Mässig on the metronome and lumbers along with oddly judged rubato. Padmore's timbral differentiation between miller and brook is tastefully subdued, and he nicely incorporates the lighter vibrato and more strict rhythm of the brook's voice as the miller slips into its embrace. In "Des Baches Wiegenlied," Lewis downplays the accented pedal notes throughout, and Padmore's awkwardly interpreted grace note at "bis das Meer will trinken" upsets what should be an eerily calm, steady rhythmic flow. The tempo choices, rhythmic and textual reinterpretations, and eschewing of expressive markings in the score throughout the performance start to smack of performers looking to do something different solely for the sake of being different.

harmonia mundi's production is certainly excellent, as is expected from this label. An insightful essay about the cycle by Gavin Plumley, full texts in German, English and French, tasteful packaging and naturally caught recorded sound combine for a superb outward appearance that is sadly let down by questionable performance choices.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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