Not every member of the chorus dreams of stepping forward to become a soloist, but it can happen (and not just as a cotton candy fantasy on Broadway or in the movies). At the 1960 Bayreuth Festival Franz Crass was pulled from the chorus to replace an indisposed George London as the lead in The Flying Dutchman, and he was such a hit that he was invited back as a solo singer the next year. The Yorkshire-born baritone Jamie W. Hall sings full-time with the elite BBC Singers, and now with his debut album he has a foot in both worlds, not pulled from the chorus in the mythical way but nevertheless stepping out to display that his voice and artistry are of solo caliber.
Despite its daunting challenges, quite a number of singers feel prepared to perform Die schöne Müllerin, as attested by the number of CDs each year that inhabit the area of poor to middling results. Hall does much better than this—he has achieved a performance marked by some truly lovely singing. His light lyric baritone isn’t distinctive, but that is unimportant compared with Hall’s ability to immediately communicate with the listener. You feel from the first song, “Das Wandern,” that he is the young, innocent miller of Schubert’s creation. Both of Schubert’s great song cycles are point-of-view stories. He deleted from Wilhelm Müller’s collection the poems that were given to other characters. Only in the last number, when the brook sings a cradle song inviting the heartbroken miller to eternal rest, does another voice intrude.
Many singers of considerable skill and reputation aren’t able to sound like the miller, merging with his feelings in a natural, intimate way, as persuasively as Hall does here. His is essentially a gentle telling of the tale, in keeping with the recorded versions by Sanford Sylvan thirty years ago (Nonesuch) and Roderick Williams more recently (Chandos)—I notice that Williams appears in the acknowledgments to this disc. Hall is completely at home in tender songs like “Pause” and “Morgengruss” but also has the ability to inflect the text in keeping with stronger emotions. In fact, his attention to the words is a particular strength, along with his sincerity and his sweet legato phrasing.
In a brief bio we learn that Hall sang pop tunes as a busker when he was a teenager, took music courses in college, and only then developed a taste for classical music. No conservatory training is mentioned, although one must assume that serious study occurred somewhere along the line. The limitation in this Schöne Müllerin isn’t one of technique—the singer’s vocal production is even, his rhythm secure, his intonation exact—but of reach. Hall isn’t fully able to dramatize the songs with loud singing, swelling crescendos, or injections of rage when the miller thinks about his rival, the Hunter.
What keeps this limitation from being serious is that the aim here is to deliver a chamber-sized Schöne Müllerin on the scale of a Schubertiade. At this Hall is eminently successful. The interesting program notes mention that the cycle was first performed as a whole in the late 1850s by Julius Stockhausen, a favorite baritone of Brahms’s, with Clara Schumann as pianist. Even then the presentation didn’t fit the modern model. A speaker recited the deleted poems, and the singer took a break halfway through while Clara played a Chopin Ballade or the “Moonlight” Sonata.
It is still standard practice to insert an intermission somewhere around the halfway point, but recordings have accustomed us to experience Die schöne Müllerin as a dramatic whole, which lays on the singer the burden of being continuously engaging for 20 songs. Given such a formidable challenge, Hall’s success is all the more praiseworthy. But he, like Sylvan and Williams, doesn’t quite deliver a three-dimensional character.
Lightness, lyricism, and intimacy serve all three singers very well, but at a deeper level this is a mythic journey, in innocent rustic garb, like Orpheus entering the underworld, saved from harm by the magical effects of music. The miller is a singer in Müller’s conception and plays the lute. His end might literally be that he drowns himself, obeying the brook’s summon to slumber beneath its waters, but in Romantic terms, his end is transcendence into the unbounded, eternal sky evoked in the last lines of “Des Baches Wiegenlied.” This journey is entirely inward, and Schubert’s genius provides a path into dark sorrow before consolation is reached.
Hall’s reach doesn’t extend to those dark regions, so that his miller ends essentially the same as he began. It takes the mastery of Julius Patzak or Jonas Kaufmann to take us everywhere between innocence and transcendence. When they do, Die schöne Müllerin equals the pathos of Winterreise, almost. I hope it is taken as a compliment that Hall’s performance can be held up to such high standards, because it is very appealing in its own right. Convivium’s sound is nearly ideal; full text and translations are included.
The notes mention that Schubert intended to make the piano equal partner to the singer, which in practice rarely happens—even star pianists like Alfred Brendel for Fischer-Dieskau and Leif Ove Andsness for Ian Bostridge sound like auxiliaries. But here Paul Plummer plays with the focused intensity suitable for performing a late Schubert piano sonata; he’s quite impressive. In all, this Schöne Müllerin is as lovely as it is surprising, and congratulations are deserved all around. A heartwarming release.