In The Cambridge Companion to Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, James William Sobaskie suggests that while ‘Winterreise elicits empathy for its outcast, inducing us to share his emotions and experience similar distress’, Schubert’s earlier song-cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, ‘solicits sympathy for its greenhorn, encouraging us to understand his feelings and regret his unhappiness’ but that we ‘become troubled by his choices and perceptions, wondering why common sense or rationality do not intervene’. As the cycle unfolds, Sobaskie argues, ‘we gradually retreat, distancing ourselves from the journeyman’.
Whatever one thinks of the merits or otherwise of Sobaskie’s claim, this performance by Iestyn Davies and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall offered a persuasive, absorbing refutation. I first heard Davies perform Die schöne Müllerin in July 2017, with Julius Drake at Middle Temple Hall (I think this was the first time that the countertenor performed the cycle). It was a recital which gave me much to think about, and enjoy, but at Wigmore Hall Davies and Middleton (who released a recording of the cycle last year) held the capacity audience transfixed with a presentation of Wilhelm Müller’s simple tale that did not – as Sobaskie suggests – make one impatient with the journeyman’s emotional naivety and defencelessness, but rather conveyed a compelling, evolving interior drama.
It’s true that Müller’s ‘story’ can seem banal. A young traveller, following a burbling brook, arrives at a mill where he takes a job and falls in love with the miller’s daughter. She is more interested in a swaggering hunter, or so he imagines, so he drowns himself in the brook. And, we know that Müller’s poem sequence began life as a sort of literary ‘party-game’, when in 1816 a circle of young artists and intellectuals met gathered in the house of Privy Councillor von Stagemann, in Berlin, and staged a sort of charade – influenced by Goethe’s mill romances – in which the participants identified themselves with a specific character in the folk-inspired romances and wrote their own parts in verse.
But, if viewed not as a sentimental tale of adolescent pitifulness, or as aristocratic entertainment, but as an embodiment of Romantic Sehnsucht, of the idea that love can only be truly fulfilled through death, and that the latter brings transcendence, then what is important in the cycle is not ‘what happens’ but what is felt, and how those feelings take form. And, so, it is the journeyman’s relationship with the natural world, specifically that murmuring brook, that is paramount. And, this is what Schubert (who had contracted syphilis at the end of 1822 or early the following year) recognised and communicated.
One can’t overstate Joseph Middleton’s role in crafting the inward emotional drama which throughout Die schöne Müllerin is expressed in poetic and musical imagery of the external world. From the first notes of ‘Das Wandern’ (Journeying) one sensed both the buoyant confidence of the young journeyman and the movement and spirit of the brook which drives him onwards. The growl of the churning mill wheel roared at the start of ‘Halt!’ (and ‘Mein!’) but the pictorial immediacy – visual and aural – was equalled by probing expressiveness, at once both sophisticated and subtle. So, at the close of ‘Halt!’, after the optimism and promise of the excited arrival at the mill – so inviting, its windows gleaming – Middleton’s beautifully modulated after-word wonderfully captured the vulnerability latent in the protagonist’s tentative question: “Ei, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein, / War es also gemeint?” (Now, dear little brook, is this what you meant?)
In ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ (Thanksgiving to the brook) the tension intimated by the turn to the minor tonality with the wanderer’s urgent questions – “Gelt, hab’ ich’s verstanden?”, “Hat sie dich geschickt?/ Oder hast mich berückt?” (Have I understood you? … Did she send you, or have you entranced me?” – was enhanced by the nuances and shadows that Middleton found in the harmonic colours. Always, the piano textures were crystalline and light-of-weight, complementing the silvery purity of Davies’ countertenor.
Davies presented an utterly convincing persona, youthfully forthright in ‘Das Wandern’, relishing the forthcoming journey, inviting us to travel with him. I still find that it takes me a while to settle into a Die schöne Müllerin sung by a countertenor (too many performances by tenors ring in my memory!), and in ‘Wohin?’, as I had at Middle Temple, I again felt a little unsettled by the large registral gap between the voice and those telling motifs in the piano left-hand – as here, when the latter ceases its octave oscillations to join the vocal line in unison. But, Davies seemed on this occasion to introduce more variety of phrasing and colour into the repetitions of phrases (and, many of the songs are strophic); somehow the restatement of the cheerful final phrase, “Lass singen, Gesell, lass rauschen,/ Und wandre fröhlich nach!” (Let them sing, my friend; let the brook babble and follow it cheerfully), seemed tinged with a foreshadowing of the pathos to come.
And, even if diversity of colour was lacking at times – it all sounded so beautifully pure and clean! – then Davies did use accumulating intensity to convey the emotional drama. In ‘Ungeduld’ (Impatience), the heightening of the penultimate repetition of the stanza-closing avowal, “Dein ist mein Herz, und soll es ewig bleiben” (My heart is yours, and shall ever remain so), was moving; and then in the final stanza – when at last piano and voice cohere – he made palpable the passion and pain throbbing through the journeyman’s heart.
The duo’s attention to detail was superb. Middleton was leisurely and ruminative at the start of ‘Morgengruss’ (Morning greeting), but Davies imbued the protagonist’s impassioned appeal with real strength and earnestness: “O lass mich nur von ferne stehen,/ Nach deinem lieben Fenster sehn,/ Von ferne, ganz von ferne!” (O just let me stand far off and gaze at your beloved window from the far distance!). The piano was wonderfully ‘dreamy’, the voicings marked by a lovely clarity, when the young miller reflects on the “dew-afflicted” flowers that bow their heads and weep for the “silent bliss” of the night, only for the music to then push forward with intent, shaking off such musings, “Nun schüttelt ab der Träume Flor”.
In ‘Des Müllers Blumen’ (The miller’s flowers), similar purposefulness was conveyed – “Ihr wisst ja, was ich meine” (I know what I mean to say) – but when the loved maiden is imagined sleeping, Middleton caressed the whispered address, “Vergiss, vergiss mein nicht!” (Forget me not), with such quiet tenderness, that the words seemed to slip within the girl’s slumber.
There were moments when Davies didn’t quite have the necessary ‘weight’ of voice – in ‘Mein’ and ‘Der Jäger’ (The hunter), for example, and a bit more swagger in ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ (Jealousy and pride) would have been welcome, along with angrier frustration in ‘Die böse Farbe’ (The hateful colour). But, it’s hard to imagine some of the slow, introspective songs being sung more beautifully.
In ‘Danksagung an dem Bach’ the “singing” and “ringing” of the brook, the journeyman’s “murmuring friend” (“Mein rauschender Freund”), seemed perfectly embodied in Davies’ pure tone; and, such beauty of sound also imbued ‘Der Neugierige’ (The inquisitive one) with an openness and honesty of expression as the young man vows not to trouble the flowers and stars with questions of love, but to ask the brook for answers. The slightest hiatus before the address, “O Bächlein meiner Liebe,/ Wie bist du heut’ so stumm!” (O brook of my love, how silent you are today!), allied with the change of meter and slight relaxation of tempo created a delicate intimacy, further enhanced by the piano after-word. There seemed to me to be resignation not consolation in the piano’s closing arpeggio-fall below the right hand’s gentle chords: this was such a poignant response to the question, “Sag’, Bächlein, liebt sie mich?” (Say, brook, does she love me?).
The close of ‘Tränenregen’ (Shower of tears) was another magical moment. The calling of the brook, “Geselle, Geselle, mich” (Follow me); the departure of the miller’s daughter; the brimming of tears – together these elements made for a fusion of diverse, intense emotions within a single moment, one deepened by Middleton’s expressive insight in shaping the major-minor key alternations and the chromatic nuances of harmony in piano. There was great pathos here, but not sentimentality.
In ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (The beloved colour), when the wanderer reflects on clothing himself in green, the withdrawn piano ostinato was unobtrusive but telling, and Davies’ heightening was persuasive: “Die Heide, die heiss ich die Liebesnot,/ Mein Schatz hat’s Jagen so gern” (The heath I call Love’s Torment: my love’s so fond of hunting). And what an overwhelmingly wistful diminuendo at the close: “Mein Schatz hat’s Grün so gern” (My love’s so fond of green).
The piano pulsing in ‘Trockne Blumen’ (Withered flowers) seemed to bear the weight of misery and dejection, and the simplicity and directness of the vocal line communicated the painful recognition that tears will not enable dead love to bloom again: “Machen tote Liebe/ Nicht wieder blühn.” But, then, thoughts that spring will follow winter were complemented by growing impetus in the piano’s dotted rhythms, as the deathly march of the opening relaxed into a bittersweet modulation to the major tonality.
Perhaps Davies might have done more in ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ (The miller and the brook) to distinguish between the speaking voices, though his attention to the details of the text was exemplary. After the final appeal, ‘Ach, Bächlein, liebes Bächlein,/ So singe nur zu” (Brook, beloved brook, sing on), the closing piano chord, so low, so impossibly quiet, seemed to call from ‘elsewhere’. ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ (The brook’s lullaby) brought a strange calm and peace. There was wisdom but also danger in Davies’ silken tone, and the aching, slowing exclamation, “Schlaf’ aus deine Freude, schlaf’ aus dein Leid!” (Sleep away your joy, sleep away your sorrow!), was made still more touching by Middleton’s judicious swelling of the right-hand accents.
This was a tale that was not pitiful, but paradoxically tragic and transfiguring.
Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Joseph Middleton (piano)
Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin
Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 9th February 2023.
 James William Sobaskie (2021), ‘Identification in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise’, in The Cambridge Companion to Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, pp. 147–164