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Franz Schubert Die Schone Mullerin (James Gilchrist & Anna Tilbrook) Review

Album. Released 2009.  

BBC Review

Gilchrist’s performance encapsulates the naive introspection of Schubert's doomed miller.

Andrew Mellor 2009

When it first appeared in 1823, Die schöne Müllerin was unique: a set of twenty interlocked songs for voice and piano with a continuous, first-person narrative. There’d been nothing like it before, and a shelf-load of memorable interpretations has sealed the work’s legendary status since.

But for all the detritus of performance history and commentary, DSM is first and foremost a story, as Gilchrist reminds us in his booklet introduction. The songs tell of an apprenticed miller, setting out to seek employment but discovering a joyous, obsessive and ultimately destructive love for the ‘fair maid of the mill’ he soon meets.

It’s Gilchrist’s distinctive vocal qualities – his light but deep-grained tone, his shapely vowels and his English poise minus the tight aristocracy of Pears or Bostridge – that make him an ideal young miller. He’s audibly wide-eyed as he sets out on his journey, and palpable weary as he nears the despair of its conclusion. Throughout, he portrays a young man of innocence, introspection and naivety rather than bold self-belief.

And his millstream – the pianist Anna Tilbrook – doesn’t go out of her way to help him. On the recent Harmonia Mundi recording from Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach, you feel pianist urging singer on: Eschenbach provoking Goerne into more protestation; indulging him in his despair. Tilbrook doesn’t do that. Instead she supplies an accompaniment that’s taut and ultra-clear. In the cyclic mechanisms of Das Wandern and Am Feierabend her playing conjures the workings of intricate oiled machinery for Schubert’s imagined millwheel.

But even if she doesn’t overtly prod Gilchrist, she is exceptionally close to him. Her accompaniment has the same intense focus and front-of-the-mouth delivery. For the poignancy and effect of that, and Gilchrist’s treasure-trove of a voice, this performance easily fights for a place among the best available.

If you want brawn, high drama and a marginally keener sense of overall architecture, then Goerne and Eschenbach can provide it. But if you’re wavering, sample the Gilchrist/Tilbrook handling of the change in mood that comes with the eighth song, Morgengruß (Morning Greeting) and continues into the ninth, Des Müllers Blumen (The Miller’s Flowers). You can hear the realisation of failure seeping into Gilchrist’s voice and Tilbrook’s piano. Acutely moving.

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