German tenor Christoph Prégardien has recorded Schubert's seminal song cycle Die Schöne Mullerin before, with Andreas Staier for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi in 1991. One immediate difference in this recording for Challenge Classics is that Michael Gees serves as accompanist and plays a modern piano rather than a period fortepiano, as did Staier. Moreover, this SACD recording of Die Schöne Mullerin and the early digital DHM are worlds apart; the sound on the DHM is distant, recessed and rather clattery, whereas the Challenge Classics recording is a huge improvement. Prégardien's voice is attractively centered, and Gees' piano is captured in a warm perspective that cloaks and envelops the singer. It's a great sound; as Prégardien's voice soars, the piano rolls through both right and left channels as waves in a babbling brook, echoing the very sentiments expressed in Wilhelm Müller's pre-Romantic texts. Prégardien's interpretation is much the same as it was Staier, though one could argue in the Challenge Classics recording he achieves a greater emotional projection, not to mention a more lightweight delivery in the tenor range; in the DHM recording he had more of a tendency to borrow from the baritone range in order to gain more heft.
That's not to throw the DHM, still available in August 2008, under the bus; it remains a very good performance, particularly in the domain of versions with a period instrument keyboard. However, this version is clearly superlative; Prégardien has grown with this work in the intervening time and it shows. This is a sensitive reading of Die Schöne Mullerin demonstrating complete integration with the material, in addition to embracing a generally more mainstream kind of performance idiom than the earlier recording. Challenge Classics' Die Schöne Mullerin with Christoph Prégardien and Michael Gees is a recording worthy of taking pride of place on the shelf alongside such "classic" versions as those by Richard Crooks, Aksel Schiøtz, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and is in considerably better recorded sound than any of them.