Barokksolistene review – group reinvent Schubert but are best in the tavern

Middle Temple Hall, London
Reworked as a music-theatre piece with a puppet and guitars, Die Schöne Müllerin loses focus, but the second half’s terrific Alehouse Sessions make up for any doubts

‘A shiny brand new kind of show, a fresh new take on the one you know,” we hear in a spoken prologue to Barokksolistene’s new version of Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, the first half of their double bill at Middle Temple Hall. The driving force behind this re-imagining is singer-director Thomas Guthrie, who argues that the song recital as we know it today was unheard of in Schubert’s time, and that Lieder were primarily performed in an informal, usually domestic setting, accompanied on occasion by instrumental improvisations as well as piano.

Schubert’s song cycle has consequently been reworked as a music-theatre piece for singer (Guthrie himself) and ensemble. Three directors (Guthrie again, Laura Caldow and Patrick Dickie) are credited for a staging that swings between inventiveness and stasis. Schubert’s tragic Miller is represented by a wide-eyed, life-size puppet operated by Guthrie and Sean Garrett, and a narration is added, spoken by Guthrie, Garrett and Rhiannon Harper-Rafferty. It suffers however from a lack of focus. Guthrie doesn’t quite have the requisite colouristic or dynamic range to project the cycle ideally well, and his charismatic presence and skills as an actor mean we end up watching him rather than the puppet, which presumably should be the focus of attention. The narration, not always distinctly spoken, and arrangements, for string quintet and two guitars, are clever but add little to our understanding.

A joyous reconstructions of the musical world of 17th century taverns: Barokksolistene at Middle Temple.
A joyous reconstructions of the musical world of 17th century taverns: Barokksolistene at Middle Temple. Photograph: Graham Everitt

After the interval comes one of the Alehouse Sessions for which Barrokksolistene are now rightly famous. Devised by the group’s wonderful leader-director Bjarte Eike, these are joyous reconstructions of the musical world of 17th-century British taverns, in which folk music, European as well as British, rub shoulders with music by Purcell and his contemporaries. The musicians swigged beer on stage as they played, sang and danced. Guthrie, also a violinist, seemed more at ease here, leading the audience in a singalong of Hey Jolly Broom Man, and soprano Mary Bevan, sitting in the audience, made a cameo appearance after being brought onstage during Raggle Taggle Gypsy. The performances were simply terrific throughout. Tremendous stuff.

• Broadcast on Radio 3 on 24 November


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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