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Music review

Unwavering focus on the miller’s sad tale

Randall Scarlata (left) and Jeremy Denk performed Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin’’ Sunday. Randall Scarlata (left) and Jeremy Denk performed Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin’’ Sunday. (Christian Steiner (Left); Dennis Callahan)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / January 20, 2010

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Baritone Randall Scarlata and pianist Jeremy Denk presented Schubert’s first song cycle, “Die Schöne Müllerin’’ (“The Lovely Miller-Maid’’), at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday. Only seven years after Beethoven invented the genre, Schubert produced a masterpiece. (Not surprising, as the 26-year-old composer already had about 500 songs under his belt.) Schubert turned Wilhelm Müller’s poetic portraits of a miller, bewitched by a mill owner’s daughter and driven to despair by her flirtation with a hunter, into a 20-song Romantic concept album, each delight and crisis adroitly translated.

Scarlata presented a fully-characterized miller (Schwarzwalder jacket included), though the emotional journey was produced via contrasts - an evolution between individual songs rather than within them. Scarlata started off in high joviality, the better to make the contrast with the eventual anguish, but the bliss of infatuation inspired a light, disconnected vocal quality, verging on pallid. It was only with the entrance of more energetic passions - jealousy, anger - that the real and impressive warmth of Scarlata’s baritone emerged.

The jealous tendencies were postulated in a surprisingly forceful version of “Mein!’’; this miller claimed his beloved with a Scarpia-like relish. For the most part, though, Scarlata was more interested in concentrating the obvious emotion of each song than in teasing out any bitter ironies. “Der Jäger’’ (“The Hunter’’) and “Eifersucht und Stolz’’ (“Jealousy and Pride’’) showed Scarlata at his steeliest, coursing with rage. In the final song, a lullaby sung by the brook in which the miller drowns himself, mention of the hunter brought a reprise of the same fierce tone, a literal rewind rather than a poignant reminder. At his best, though, Scarlata provided a superb account, his German impeccable and stylish, his focus unwavering.

Denk was a terrific partner, spreading a burnished tonal canvas, creating both a sentient surface of detail and an assured sense of structure. Schubert’s accompaniments, models of seemingly artless simplicity, unfolded in expressive layers; Denk showed an especially deft touch in the timing and balance of the songs’ shifts of harmony. He also had the confidence and skill to let the music alone carry the weight, as in a beautifully plain rendition of “Der Neugierige’’ (“The Curious One,’’ the miller in plaintive limbo as to his romantic chances), or the final lullaby, Schubert’s repeating waves drifting into silence, strophe by strophe. In “Die Schöne Müllerin,’’ as in so much of Schubert’s music, the misery is cushioned by ineffable gentleness.

RANDALL SCARLATA, BARITONE; JEREMY DENK, PIANO

At: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday