Classics Today
David Vernier
Die schöne Mullerin
Jonas Kaufmann and Helmut Deutsch's Die schöne Müllerin is as close to an ideal realization of Schubert's song cycle as you can find on disc. Apparently recorded in a single concert performance (with a remarkably quiet audience and thankfully no sudden intrusive applause at the end), the 20 songs not only tell the fateful tale of the young miller but, thanks to Kaufmann's artful expression, easily and believably draw us into the heart of the singer's emotional journey as well. In an interview Kaufmann describes how he believes that the singer of these songs must actually embody the voice of the one who is in the moment living the described events and deeply-felt emotions, rather than, as in some interpretations, serving as simply a "narrator", physically and temporally detached from the story.

As such, we truly feel the youthful joy (if not completely the youthful voice) of the optimistic young man (and not a hint of tragedy to come) in Kaufmann's ebullient Das Wandern. The timbre of Kaufmann's voice--an unusual rich, baritonal tenor--may give the impression of a character more mature than the poet describes, but we certainly miss nothing of the "young soul" that Kaufmann so affectingly portrays in the early songs. The shift from carefree spirit to excited, hopeful love, to anger, and then despair is more subtle than in some renditions of this popular work. But this more carefully nuanced progression helps make little details more noticeable, such as the wonderful sense of doubt and even foreboding suggested by the piano chords at the end of the 12th song, Pause.

As in any true concert recording--that is, one that doesn't enjoy the corrective trickery of the later studio touch-up--this one isn't devoid of the occasional "imperfection" of note or tone, especially in the earliest two or three songs. But this is a journey from which there is no turning back, and by the time we hear the miller's "thanksgiving to the mill-stream" (Danksagung an den Bach), Kaufmann has us under both the spell of his voice and of Schubert's remarkable musical portrayal. Along the way, Kaufmann and Deutsch treat us to interesting little variations in the strophic songs (baritone Kevin McMillan provides an excellent discussion of this challenge in his notes for his own first-rate recording on Dorian) while bringing uncommon lyricism and emotional depth to the through-composed melodies. Kaufmann's Der Neugierige may be the best ever recorded, and his high-register soft singing is as lovely as you'll hear in any repertoire. Deutsch's playing is commendable for its faithfulness to the letter of Schubert's notation--a rest truly means rest(!)--but it's memorable for its ultimate deference to the spirit of the music that lies between the notes and barlines. The Kaufmann/Deutsch partnership is a winning one where Schubert is concerned, and whether an existing fan of this masterpiece or a listener looking for discovery, don't hesitate to choose this; it's an exquisitely sad journey you'll be happy you took.

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