Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, written almost 200 years ago, is one of the supreme tests of the lieder singer’s art. South Tyrolean baritone Andrè Schuen – praised by Opera Today for the “intelligence and sensitivity” of his lieder singing – has performed it several times in recent years with his long-term recital partner Daniel Heide, and the duo have spent countless hours contemplating the meaning of its 20 songs. Schuen chose to record the work with Heide for his Deutsche Grammophon debut album, set for release on 5 March 2021.
Andrè Schuen’s Die schöne Müllerin combines meticulous preparation with striking spontaneity. He and Daniel Heide revelled in the opportunity to explore each song in the studio, taking risks to produce the most tender sounds and richest variety of tone colours. They give life to the story of a young miller who wanders the countryside in search of work and sees his carefree world transformed when he discovers a brook, follows it to the local mill and falls for its owner’s beautiful daughter. When his love remains unrequited, however, tragedy ensues.
Schubert’s cycle, notes Schuen, is life-affirming and joyful almost to its midpoint. When the miller realises that his love is not reciprocated, his optimistic mood declines into the darkness of suicidal thoughts. This contrast of course requires a nuanced vocal range. “I didn’t want to wait too long before recording Die schöne Müllerin because voices tend to get darker and heavier with age,” says Schuen. “By recording it now, while I’m relatively young, I can still bring many light colours to the music as well. The piece makes no sense to me without them.”
Heide, meanwhile, believes that because it’s the closest to the male speaking voice, the baritone pitch lends itself particularly well to the narrative aspect of Die schöne Müllerin: “It has a warmth and ease that make you hang on every word.”
Both Schuen and Heide feel it’s impossible for artists today to be unaware of existing recordings. And as the pianist explains, much of their research is done on the road: “We have a kind of ritual – whoever’s not driving takes charge of the music and we can spend eight or nine hours comparing different versions of a particular work. It’s like a kind of rehearsal, because we analyse every aspect, but in the end, our approach is always different from anything we’ve listened to.”
Schuen agrees: “Of all the many recordings of Die schöne Müllerin we’ve heard, the role model and inspiration for me remains Fritz Wunderlich’s for Deutsche Grammophon, but because he was a lyric tenor, I can’t fall into the trap of copying him.”
Die schöne Müllerin was one of the first song cycles to exploit the interplay of voice and piano to illustrate poetic imagery and create a genuine partnership between singer and pianist. Heide explains something about the way he and Schuen work together: “As accompanist, you have to know the songs very well from the singer’s perspective, you have to know the lyrics, where it’s possible to take a breath. I love Andrè’s clarity of breath – he allows me to guess when and how a note will sound, and also how long a phrase will last. And the security we’ve developed over ten years allows us to be spontaneous on stage.”
Critics have been swift to praise the pair’s Schubert interpretations. Their recital of Schwanengesang, given at the 2019 Schwarzenberg Schubertiade, prompted forumopera.com to commend the baritone’s “beautifully timbred voice, as warm as embers, as easy to drink as good wine”, while their account of Winterreise at Munich’s Prinzregententheater in February 2020 inspired the Süddeutsche Zeitung’s reviewer to conclude that both singer and pianist “were convincing in every respect, as they shaped [the work] in a multi-faceted, yet always natural way”.
And that naturalness, says Schuen, is something very important to both him and Heide when it comes to shaping an interpretation of a work such as Die schöne Müllerin. It was a quality they were determined to bring to their recording: “The biggest difficulty in the studio is actually producing the natural flow you get on stage, so that you achieve that sense of contemplation.” Their awareness of that difficulty, however, combined with their long experience of performing the work together and interacting with audiences, has enabled singer and pianist to brush it aside and bring every emotional nuance of Schubert’s masterpiece vividly and naturally to life.