If I were to create a ‘Top Trumps’-style league table of composers and their music, I would give Franz Schubert full marks in the ‘Beauty’ category. There is something so humane in the music of this tortured young soul, something that touches a wellspring of the emotion, beauty and pain of living and loving. There is no finer example of this than Die schöne Müllerin, Schubert’s first proper song cycle. Consisting of twenty poems by Wilhelm Müller, it narrates a young man’s arrival at a mill to work, where he promptly falls for the miller’s daughter, convinces himself she loves him, and, upon discovering she does not, decides it is impossible to live without her love, and drowns himself. A highly Romantic, romanticised rustic tale, but one in which all the uncertainties, expectancies and jealousies of youth are explored and expressed in an intense and relevant way. Add Schubert’s music into the equation, and the emerging work becomes one of incredibly moving yet harrowing psychological examination, perfectly expressed in Schubert’s unique Lieder-writing style.

Obviously, I was rather excited about attending a surprisingly rare performance of this remarkable song cycle at Wigmore Hall, with leading baritone Florian Boesch and Lieder specialist Malcolm Martineau at the piano. I wasn’t the only one: the hall was packed, with ‘standing room only’ tickets on sale for £15 a head. ‘Das Wandern’, a lively song in which the young protagonist sings optimistically (and naïvely) of the joys of journeying, opens the cycle. The ever-constant semiquaver piano accompaniment, evoking the babbling brook by the mill, is a feature throughout Die schöne Müllerin, as the brook itself is a major character in the narrative. Boesch’s strikingly rich baritone voice was a sound to behold, although perhaps a little incongruous, given our puny little apprentice. The fact that the score had been transposed down to suit the singer’s range – a very acceptable practice in Lieder performances – proved slightly problematic, as the rapid piano passages prevalent especially in the first few songs all lay a little low in the piano’s range, thus depicting a muddy, murky brook rather than the bright and clear stream described in the poems. Boesch’s casual appearance – black suit with black open-collared shirt, leaning on the piano – was at first unsettling, but as the miller boy became more animated (upon spying the miller’s girl), so Boesch became more dramatically engaged, his earlier complacency proving a simple dramatic mirroring of his character’s unfounded security.

This security fast becomes insecurity as our young miller’s obsessive love for his boss’s daughter causes him to realise his inabilities and inadequacies. Schubert documents this anguished inquisitiveness by having the piano play a minimal chordal accompaniment in ‘Der Neugierige’, contrasting strongly with the previous busy brook-like motives, and leaving the singer’s melody exposed and alone. The playful opening greeting of ‘Morgengruß’ quickly succumbs to pleading, and Boesch portrayed the boy’s increasingly stalkerish tendencies excellently, shifting his weight constantly from foot to foot and making furtive glances. ‘Tränenregen’, a pretty little ditty in which the singer recounts a close encounter with the beautiful maiden, veils references to his tragic end, and Boesch again excelled theatrically, depicting the boy’s child-like disappointment at the girl’s eventual shutout. However, Boesch seemed more angry than overjoyed as the cycle reached its first pinnacle with ‘Mein!’: surprising, seeing as it relates the boy’s certainty that his love is reciprocated.

More happy songs, including the beautiful tranquillity of ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’, are marred by presages of the boy’s eventual watery demise. Finally, the complacency of the both the youth and the music are challenged by the arrival of the hunter in ‘Der Jäger’, and with a jolt that shakes the listener, the music becomes rapid and tempestuous; despite some increasingly furrowed brows, I don’t feel the intense drama of the situation was communicated musically, as it has to be in a song cycle. In fact, I felt Boesch’s whole performance put more emphasis on theatrical rather than musical drama and communication, something that left me feeling a little cheated, given my conviction that Schubert encapsulates these vital qualities so incredibly in his music.

The youth’s raging jealousy melts into despondent depression in the funereal march of ‘Die liebe Farbe’, with its painful harmonic twists around a constantly repeated, stabbing note. Here we encounter his first death-wish, but quickly his obsessive character revels in self-destruction. Enticed by the bewitching brook’s offer of eternal repose, the tortured boy succumbs, and the cycle’s last song ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ is a hauntingly serene death lullaby. Although I felt it could have been more tenderly performed, it was a very beautiful, peaceful ending to a moving recital: perhaps not as musically engaging or emphatic as it promised to be, but still evidence of the composer’s indisputable emotional genius – and top ‘Beauty’ points.

Florian Boesch baritone; Malcolm Martineau piano, at Wigmore HallDavid Fay reviews Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau performing Die schöne Müllerin at Wigmore Hall.3