“Please do not turn the page” reads the text handout for Jeremy Sams’ new translation of The Fair Maid of the Mill (Die schöne Müllerin), “until the song and its accompaniment have ended”. An odd separation; for in Schubert’s twenty-song cycle, piano and voice, song and accompaniment are so well balanced and mimic and answer each other so readily that they often cannot be distinguished one from the other. Tenor Toby Spence and pianist Christopher Glynn, the latter who commissioned this new translation, complemented this musical relationship perfectly, but something in this, the first of three ‘Schubert in English’ recitals at Wigmore Hall this season, was a little off. Where, to echo the miller in his first plaintive “Somewhere” (Das Wandern), was “hard to say”; perhaps a mix of the sometimes disorientating translation, a lack of preparation or première jitters left this performance a little flat.

Toby Spence © Mitch Jenkins
Toby Spence
© Mitch Jenkins

Sams takes liberties right from the off; his is not a translation for the faint-hearted. Purists look away now. Translating Müller’s poetry from its sublime German to work well in this vernacular was always going to be a difficult task, its limitations noted by Sams himself. “This translation,” he writes, “was never going to be a word-for-word literal one.”

“Das Wandern ist des Müllers Lust,” reads the German. Sams’s equivalent: “A miller loves to sit and dream of somewhere.” Only one word of this translation is in common with the original, a fact acknowledged by Sams; he is not trying to capture the exact text, but, instead, the “essence” of it. It is controversial idea in translation theory, but one that works. Some of Müller’s more archaic phrases, common to the Romantic German ear in 1820, but less so in our contemporary world, have been done away with completely (no trace exists of the miller’s “Wanderstab”the “Kohlgarten” (cabbage patch) is morphed into a far more romantic “strawberry bed” and, perhaps most bizarrely, the “frische Beet” (fresh beds or fields, in context normally translated as newly-tilled) of Impatience are now “watercress”, presumably to rhyme with “happiness” in the following line. This is the clunkiest example of one of Sams’s biggest problems.

Around half of Müller’s original texts are in strophic form, which adds yet another difficulty to translation, but there is a surprisingly refreshing joy for those who are not German natives, in being able to hear this beautiful cycle in not only English, but English that is both relevant and sharp, even if some of the original beauty is slightly lost. Sams’ version allows for a far more comprehending relationship between singer and listener, enhanced by Spence’s easy rapport with the Hall.  

If the extent of the liberties taken was lost on the audience, however, they sadly were not on the singer. Perhaps due to the often unorthodox wording, or simply from being used to a different translation, Spence seemed uncertain at times of the new lyrics, occasionally substituting Sams’ words with his own synonyms, and at several moments forgetting the text completely. Mistakes happen, even by seasoned stars in top venues. Spence's recovery from several slip-ups, and Glynn’s quiet reassurance, was a masterclass in professionalism.

And it was the infectious spirit that Spence embodied that carried him through. Glynn’s brook was an exquisite trickle of water, his horn a maddening battle cry, his echoing phrases evocative and enticing; but it was Spence who brought an unwavering enthusiasm to the texts, which was both entrancing and endearing. Sams uses very little punctuation in his translation, which allowed Spence to soar and to whisper where he chose, to expand upon the wonderful lyricism for which he has become so famous but also to revel in the quieter, broken passages. The longing for his love’s reciprocation was deeply felt and actively moving; this is a singer who truly understands the narrative behind the cycle, and begs us to join him. The recital finished with over a minute of silence, Spence frozen on stage, head bowed, as he floats out to sea. Fluffs and oddities forgotten, the final tableau was startling moving; in English or in German, perfect or not, the miller’s lost love is ultimately both devastating and beautiful, and impossible to ignore.