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Classical 101

Ginger or Mary Ann? Once Again, Schubert's Die schoene Muellerin

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[adam: this has audio] Do you know the Ginger or Mary Ann game? It's the game in which pubescent and adolescent boys try to discern their preference between the Gilligan's Island characters Ginger, the sex pot movie star, and  the naïve, corn-fed all-American beauty Mary Ann. In a way, the game raises the whole Madonna/whore question: which gives greater pleasure - glamor, beauty and (forgive me) generosity, or goodness, simplicity and continence? Without selling too much of our souls to Sigmund Freud, we can explore the same terrain among classical music genres, specifically opera and the song cycle. Opera is like Ginger. It's glitzy, over the top, exciting, glamorous, dangerous, larger than life and - sometimes literally - full figured. The song cycle, on the other hand, is more like Mary Ann, slender in performing forces, unobtrusively ladylike and beautiful in its subtlety of expression. In opera big, fat scenes replete with choruses, orchestras and egos burst on stage in hours of brazen emotional corpulence. But the song cycle, a modest, sylph-like happening for voice and piano, saves itself for the sacralized intimacy of the salon or recital hall. So for a moment, imagine that Ginger is from Las Vegas and Mary Ann is from Mayberry. What would happen if our girl Ginger visited Mayberry? Would her womanly abundance overwhelm the wholesome mythical town, or would her electric presence generate just enough seismic activity to expose the flesh beneath Mayberry's cassocks? As unlikely as it may seem, the two most recent recordings of Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin raise, for me at least, these questions. In my post on the earlier of these recordings, I wrote of being intrigued by tenor Jonas Kaufmann's dynamic performance. On first hearing, I found Kaufmann's Wagnerian voice too big and worldly wise to portray the cycle's naïve and lovesick protagonist. But ultimately, how Kaufmann used his protean voice to convey the vissicitudes of his character's emotional landscape won me over. Kaufmann creates a different sound for each of our protagonist's nerve endings; we therefore feel each twist or turn in the mill hand's emotional journey, much the same way an opera bares to all the senses the events of its characters' pained inner lives. A more recent new recording of Die schöne Müllerin has caused me to reflect on the nature of the song cycle and what listeners can reasonably desire in performances of the genre. The new recording is that of tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis, a formidable pair about whom I rhapsodized in my post on their recording of Schubert's Winterreise. As one might expect of such great talents, Padmore and Lewis simply lay it down in Die schöne Müllerin. And given the nature of Padmore's voice - light and youthful-sounding enough to be a convincing emobdiment of our unstable protagonist -  the song cycle should rightfully be Padmore's domain. His classic lieder voice neither caricatures the emotional depths of the song texts, nor imposes upon the ear and psyche of the listener. Perhaps needless to say, Paul Lewis' playing is beautifully sculpted at all times. So Padmore and Lewis begin their Müllerin project with raw materials one could imagine special ordering for the job. Those raw materials allowed them to render an interpretation of the cycle that falls squarely in line with traditional art song performance, in which songs are treated more like little pearls to be shaped, polished and displayed at rest around an alabaster neck, and less like the linkage of intense and tiny dramas their texts betray. When it comes to singing art song cycles, giving satisfying shape and dimension to a cycle's overarching dramatic narrative is the ultimate interpretive challenge. In Müllerin, in which over the course of twenty songs the protagonist reveals bit by bit his obsession with the cycle's title character, it is the performers' specific job to take us on what the song texts tell us is a wild ride, a trip through the craggy inner landscape of our unstable portagonist, from the highest mountain of elation to the ultimate depths of despair. If the performers have done their jobs, then we feel the protagonist's joy in infatuation, his hope for reciprocation, his longing for his beloved's attention, his jealous desire to guard her (as though she ever really were "his") against the threat of an interloper; we understand why he imagines and truly believes the miller-maid has given him flowers; we sink with him into despair when he realizes she will never love him; we at once lament that the brook sings him to eternal sleep and rejoice that our mill hand has found repose from his fruitless striving. If at the end of all that we do not feel just a wee bit wrung out, we must ask why. So as perfect as Padmore's voice is for lieder and as perfectly matched in musical temperament as Padmore and Lewis seem to be, I had to ask why I still prefer the Wagnerian Kaufmann's interpretation of Die schöne Müllerin. To be sure, I'm working with an embarrassment of riches, as miraculous as both recordings are. Padmore and Lewis' aristocratic tastes for this repertory have yielded a recording of Müllerin that does everything right; on the other hand, in recording Die schöne Müllerin, Kaufmann has left the Vegas-like world of opera and moved to Mayberry and, conversely, taken the song cycle out of the salon and into the opera house. In other words, Ginger came to Mayberry, and sparks flew in spectacular ways.  Let's take a listen to some passages from both recordings. We'll start with the fifith song in the cycle, Am Feierabend. At the close of the workday, our anti-hero wishes he could impress the miller-maid with feats of superhuman strength. Alas, he cannot, and we imagine it is a barely post-adolescent scrawniness that keeps him from being singled out for her special attention among his mates. Padmore portrays the mill hand in all his inescapable youth: [audio:padmore_feierabend.mp3] But the character here yearns to be older, more masculine and more accomplished than he actually is. Kaufmann's heavier voice gains us access to this level of interpretation, a wish our protagonist dare not put in words: [audio:kaufmann_feierabend.mp3] A few songs later, we come to Morgengruβ, in which our mill hand sings a morning "serenade" beneath his beloved's window. It takes either a healthy ego or abject cluelessness for a man to try to win a woman over by waking her up with his singing. Padmore accesses the protagonist's naïveté with his light, clear voice, but across all four strophes there's only subtle variaton in vocal timbre and text declamation: [audio:padmore_morgengruss.mp3] Kaufmann's recording, on the other hand, suggests Schubert's mill hand is second cousins with Wagner's naïvely fearless Siegfried. His reading of the song's text enables us to feel the protagonist's struggle in connecting with the miller-maid: he bursts forth in song in the first strophe, lightens his voice as he uses a pet name ("little blonde head") to lure her to the window, (in the musical example below) all but whispers in remarking on the miller-maid's sleep-heavy eyes and again calls for her to "shake off the bloom of dreams," greet the day and accept his love: [audio:kaufmann_morgengruss.mp3] Later, we come to Mein!, a happy-sounding ditty, but possibly the most pathetic song in the cycle. The mill hand thinks he's captured the miller-maid's heart, and he sings his unbridled joy to the brook, the birds, the spring flowers and the mighty sun itself. The song is beautiful and elegant in Padmore's hands: [audio:padmore_mein.mp3] But in Kaufmann's interpretation, the protagonist can barely contain the nervous energy of new (what he thinks is) true love: [audio:kaufmann_mein.mp3] The penny drops for our poor mill hand in Die liebe Farbe, where all hope that the miller-maid might love him fades away. He now understands the color green - the color of springtime newness and new love - as the color of death, which he now seeks. He's now just like the hunter who, we are to believe, stole his beloved, only our protagonist hunts not fierce creatures but the passivity of death. Padmore's work is, again, beautiful in a traditional way. His voice accesses the anti-hero's fragility: [audio:padmore_die_liebe_farbe.mp3] But Kaufmann allows us to feel the confusion the mill hand feels as he reinterprets past desires in the face of dejection. Here Kaufmann's voice puts on a strong face but, on a dime, turns dark and reflective: [audio:kaufmann_die_liebe_farbe.mp3] Of course, it all comes down to personal preference and, in the case of such phenomenal artistry, hair-splitting  - both recordings have made already history because they're so darn good. One could argue that Padmore and Lewis' Die schöne Müllerin does all the right things. One could also argue that Kaufmann's recording is outside the box (and a bit brazenly so) because the tenor'svoice is better suited for opera than lieder. On both counts, one would be right. But Kaufmann's Wagnerian voice reveals to us all the fluctuations of our protagonist's heart, which, in my book, pretty much equals a successful interpretation of the cycle's dramatic texts. So, Ginger or Mary Ann? There will always be a venerable place in the world for Mary Ann's orthodoxy, but, I am told, Ginger makes the heart beat faster. - Jennifer Hambrick