Tuesday 11 July 2017

Iestyn Davies in Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin

Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin
Schubert Die schöne Müllerin; Iestyn Davies, Julius Drake; Temple Song at Middle Temple Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 10 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A remarkable voice in a remarkable song cycle

A counter-tenor voice singing Schubert lieder is still a relatively unusual phenomenon, so there was great interest in Iestyn Davies' Temple Song recital at Middle Temple Hall on 10 July 2017 when accompanied by pianist Julius Drake, the counter-tenor sang Schubert's first great song-cycle Die schöne Müllerin. Having a high voice in this cycle makes a lot of sense as it brings out the youthful qualities of the young hero, though even female recordings of the cycle are relatively rare with notable ones by Lotte Lehmann (1942), Brigitte Fassbaender (1993) and Barbara Hendricks (2003).

Iestyn Davies is known for his espousal of both the Baroque and the contemporary repertoire, and seeing how he brought his intelligent approach and elegant tone to bear on Schubert was always going to be interesting and illuminating. He used copies of the text, but merely as an aide memoire and this was a highly communicative performance with the relative intimacy of Middle Temple Hall helping.

Text is, of course, important in Schubert and whilst Davies sang more lyrically on the voice than some singers, his projection of the text was excellent. This cycle had a constant feel of being about the text and the narrative. There was more of a sense of Davies relating a story to us, rather than being a dramatic narrative with the singer as protagonist.

The opening song, Das Wandern was engaging yet serious, with a vivacity to the words. For this initial sequence of songs Davies' only gave us moments of lyrical beauty, concentrating on a strong sense of character in the voice, helped by Julius Drake's vivid piano playing. Despite the carefree moments, this young man took life rather seriously.  Am Feierabend started out as a vivid narrative but the final section moved into a sense of melancholy gave an indication of what was to come, whilst Der Neugierige was beautifully yearning.

Ungeduld was taken at quite a speed and we were conscious of the sheer number of words here, whereas Morgengruss was notable for the sheer beauty of line. Davies was often rather touching in these lighter moments, giving us a clear sense of the rather serious, poetic young man. Mein! was taken at quite a fast speed, and again with a sense of the sheer number of words and the there was a certain bravura element to the song which did not seem quite appropriate. But with Pause we returned to wistful melancholy.

Mit dem grünen Lautenbande was nicely carefree, but the words in Der Jäger seemed to canter by with a sense of bravura rather than anger. But Eifersucht und Stolz brought out a feeling of drama. Die liebe Farbe and Die böse Farbe were nicely contrasting, the first bleak but beautiful the second robust. With the final three songs Davies and Drake reached a sense of moving melancholy, with Davies sense of line and tone creating a mood of elegant bleakness, and perhaps a hint of coolness too. Again, I returned to the idea that the protagonist was relating something rather then imparting personal involvement, but Der Müller under der Bach and Des Baches wiegenlied were full of infinite melancholy and have rarely seemed so beautiful.

I have to confess that I was slightly curious about the version of the cycle that Davies and Drake were using, partly because there seemed to be a number of moments when Davies soared above the piano part in a way which does not happen in the original tenor version.

Throughout the performance, Davies was finely partnered by Julius Drake at the piano, with Drake's playing creating a strong sense of character in complement to Davies. Any artist's encounter with Schubert is always going to part of a journey rather than a finished article, and there was a sense here of Davies setting out on his exploration of Schubert's great song cycle. There will be further encounters, I am sure.
Update: A correspondent pointed out that Iestyn Davies simply used a copy of the text, not the music, as an aide memoire.

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  1. Just a minor correction, if I may; Iestyn used only the text as an aide memoire, not the musical score at Monday's recital.

    1. Thanks, I wondered if that was the case but could not see from where I was sitting


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