DIE SCHÖNE MÜLLERIN
ALAN BENNETT, Tenor
CHOI HYE-SEON, Piano
SOTA Concert Hall
14 February 2014)
This review was published in The Straits Times on 17 February 2014 with the title "Conveying unrequited love exquisitely".
How did you spend your Valentine’s Day evening? Was it an expensive restaurant and overpriced roses with someone you were hoping to impress, or in the company of the music of Franz Schubert? The Austrian composer was one of the great Romantics, for whom Fate dealt a bad hand in a tragically short life. His Lieder and song cycles dwelled on love, but he was not to enjoy its fruits.
His 1823 cycle Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid Of The Mill) of 20 songs after poetry by Wilhelm Müller was about young love, unrequited and rebuffed, leading ultimately to despair and suicide. Not quite the stuff for courting couples, but given the chemistry between the husband and wife team of tenor Alan Bennett and pianist Choi Hye-Seon, one could be easily persuaded.
The concert began with two solo Impromptus (from Op.90) performed by Choi. The rippling right hand figurations over which lyricism ruled supreme provided a prelude to the exquisite hour and a bit to follow, besides allowing late-comers to settle in their seats.
Bennett possesses an unusually bright and youthful voice, one with a clear ring in the topmost registers, belying his hefty physical stature. Singing completely from memory and not fettered with a score, he was able to convey a myriad of moods and emotions by communicating directly at the audience.
From the unabashed optimism of Das Wandern (Wandering) and Wohin? (Whither) to hesitant uncertainty of Der Neugierige (Curiosity) and Ungeduld (Impatience), one could readily follow the young miller’s descent into emotional turmoil. This was aided by a booklet with the German texts and translations, but the downside was the rustling caused by hundreds of leaves being noisily turned. At least people were paying attention.
It was a testament to Bennett’s art and endurance that each song sounded freshly minted, and there was little or no evidence of strain as he progressed. The 14th and 15th songs Der Jäger (The Huntsman) and Eifersucht und Stolz (Jealousy and Pride), with indignant words spat out at a furious pace, were accomplished with relative ease and facility. His partner Choi was sensitive and supportive throughout.
The cycle’s last three songs, also its most famous, were wonderfully portrayed. The bleakness of Tröckne Blumen (Wilted Flowers), synonymous with love snuffed out, and the dirge-like rhythm of Der Müller und Der Bach (The Miller and The Brook) were allusions of death itself. The final Des Baches Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby) provided an uneasy balm of terminal repose, with its waters obliviously washing over hope and life itself.
The encore demanded by the audience was a teaser for the next song cycle to come, Winterreise (Winter Journey). A warm reception for Bennett and Choi awaits.