We all know that the coronavirus pandemic was not good news for the performing arts industry… in fact it put a stop to every live performance around the globe almost overnight, but much like the immovable object vs the unstoppable force, which would give in first, the virus, or our musicians’ desire to perform?
Well one musician who didn’t let the pestilence of SARS-CoV-2 stop him from creating and sharing beautiful music with his audience was Jamie W. Hall - classical baritone, BBC Singers member, and soon to be a bathrobe-wearing singing sensation, after he started sharing daily videos of himself performing in his living room on his Twitter account. These daily #BathrobeRecitals, as they came to be known, grew ever more popular, and encouraged Jamie to start a group called the Proud Songsters, dedicated to performing and sharing Art Song through online performances. These efforts to keep music going throughout the various lockdowns lead Jamie to be commended by the Royal Philharmonic Society and also be named 'Musician of The Year 2020' in the Classical Music Digital Awards, as well as raise over £3000 for charity through his Bathrobe Recitals Advent Calendar. We interviewed Jamie for our own audiophile advent calendar last year, which you can check out here.
Foremost a concert soloist, but with an impressive array of conducting, ensemble, and compositional experience under his belt, it is almost a surprise that Jamie W. Hall had not, until recently, recorded a solo CD. However, with an increasing Twitter following, he chose to follow an unusual route and crowdfund the cost of the recording by selling pre-orders of the CD. The music Hall chose was close to his heart, and a piece that he’d always dreamed of recording, so upon the success of the fundraising efforts, a brand new recording of the most influential Romantic song cycle, Schubert’s famous Die schöne Müllerin, was set in motion.
Highly anticipated in the classical music community, it has been a pleasure to have had an early copy to review and, at the risk of spoiling the rest of the review, I don't mind admitting it has scarcely left the CD player since it arrived. Hall partnered with Convivium Records for his debut recording, a classical record label well known for supporting new artists, and who have a great team behind them from recording engineer Adaq Khan to producer George Richford. Renowned pianist Paul Plummer accompanies Hall, and the experience, expertise and maturity his playing brings to the performance is superb.
Despite admitting himself that there is no shortage of Die schöne Müllerin recordings available, Hall has always felt a great affinity with Schubert Lieder and there is no higher honour in the Romantic song cycle repertoire than Die schöne Müllerin. It is a vast undertaking to learn over an hour of solo recital music, particularly in an unfamiliar language, but with practice people can achieve great things, and this is certainly one of those things.
I’ve listened to this recording over and over on various HiFi systems to really explore what Hall has brought to the famous tale of the beautiful miller’s maid. As I am writing this, I am listening to it on the Arcam CDS50 CD player, plugged into the Primare I15, and out through a pair of Dali Oberon 7s and REL T/7x Subwoofer, all connected by Van Den Hul cables. A treat for audiophiles and classical music aficionados if ever there was one, this recording is flawlessly performed and meticulously engineered, and although I’m listening to the CD version, there is also an incredibly high-resolution DXD/DSD digital file available to download from Convivium’s website, if you have the right kit to play it!
Now enough rambling, onto the music.
Beginning with 'Das Wandern', Hall and Plummer immediately draw the listener into the rural scene of the journeyman miller following a gentle brook, with Hall articulating the emotions of the miller so expertly that one doesn’t have to understand German to understand and sympathise with what the protagonist is feeling. Hall’s beautifully warm tone, combined with the gently rippling cyclical broken chord piano accompaniment paints a wonderful picture of the waterside setting of this ‘quasi-operatic monodrama’.
Skipping ahead to a personal favourite of mine, in the brief but deeply emotional through-composed ‘Am Feierabend’, the delicate precision of Plummer’s arpeggiated semi-quaver motif and powerful lower register representing the inner rumblings of the mill stones on the piano, and Hall’s masterful handling of the protagonist’s desperate yearning to be enough to attract the attention of the Miller’s daughter are a delight to listen to. Such a contrast it is to the second stanza, where Hall so artfully conveys the miller’s inner turmoil and feeling of inadequacy upon realising he cannot compete with the other workers.
Hall and Plummer’s natural sense of timing, and subtle, to the point of almost telepathic, communication between soloist and accompanist should be highly commended here, as it is a skill hard won only by many years of practice and experience. Every note, and every minute dynamic, articulate, and textural change is played so harmoniously together by accompaniment and voice that the final sound produced could be from one individual. And nowhere is this more obvious than track 7, ‘Ungeduld’, a strophic song of four stanzas with the protagonist professing his undying love for the maiden of the mill, each ending with the beautiful refrain ‘Dein ist mein Herz und soll es ewig blieben’, or ‘My heart is yours, and shall be forever’. The refrain really allows Hall to indulge in a dramatic, almost operatic moment with emphatic drawn out vibrato on the word ‘Dein’, and satisfying melismatic movement on ‘Bleiben’. This is a particularly challenging piece as Hall must convey the Miller’s agitated state with quick syllabic word setting, but absolutely in time with the restless, repeated chords in the accompaniment. And he succeeds.
Another moment where I think Hall shines in particular is in the tense and emotionally involved ‘Der Jäger’, a point in the poem that marks the Miller’s descent from infatuation to tragedy, triggered by the introduction of a romantic rival in the form of a dashing young hunter dressed in green - the miller’s daughter’s favourite colour. This jealous rant in C minor is syllabic to the point of reminding me of comic patter song, so fast and text dense is each line. This song could, in less accomplished hands (or should I say lungs?), be muddled, messy, and completely miss the almost theatrical effect Schubert intended, however Hall enunciates perfectly, each word loaded with fierce hatred towards the hunter and easily discernible from the next. The brash, hunting horn style melodies on the piano contribute towards the overall sense of violence in this song, almost like the miller is verbally hunting the hunter.
I’d like to finally comment on the piece I think may be the most beautiful in the whole song cycle, and one that I think provides almost more resolution than the final song, track 19, ‘Der Müller Und Der Back’. In this piece the young miller embraces his heartbreak, turns to the brook that lead him to the flour mill in the first place, and ultimately allows himself to drift down into its ‘cool repose’, while the brook lulls him to sleep. These elegant yet tragic final words from the Miller require nothing but the utmost delicacy and mindfulness from both voice and piano, which, after listening to Hall’s voice for the past 66 minutes, I believe is one of the most impressive aspects of his musicianship. It is one thing to belt out the baritone line in a piece like Zadok the Priest, however to sing pianissimo while delivering skin tingling emotion and still musically interact with the accompaniment is uncommonly difficult and a real pleasure to listen to.
To conclude, then, the biggest question I had before listening to this recording was will it stand out from all the other Die schöne Müllerin CDs available? The answer - absolutely. Hall’s clear love for, and understanding of the music makes for an incredibly moving, engaging and deeply introspective performance, and contributes more to an enjoyable hour’s listening than any amount of practice could have. That is not to diminish Hall’s and Plummer’s technical skills and rehearsal time, however. This recording is not only superb at an emotional level but is also an impressive display of clear technical accomplishment, consummate musicianship and deep respect and understanding of the source material.