18 Oct 2012

Schumann: Under the influence

The first of four concerts in Jonathan Biss’s ‘Schumann: Under the influence’ series at the Wigmore Hall was a focused, intelligent and, at times, sensuous and illuminating, evening of music-making.

In an explicatory note, Biss declares his intention to move Schumann from the sidelines — admired, says Biss, only for a remarkably small number of his works — to the centre-stage, as a “vital, riveting creative force”. Each of Biss’s four programmes endeavours to show Schumann’s relationship to both past and present, pairing his works with those of an influential predecessor and a composer of the future whose music “without him would not have been possible”.

Poetic and musical links were forged in this recital, with Schubert’s settings of Heine, from the song cycle Schwanengesang, preceding a performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe, the composer’s self-constructed sequence of poems by Heine written to honour and celebrate his love for his beloved Clara. Tenor Mark Padmore was a serious and moving interpreter, although his meticulous pronunciation did not quite embrace the sensuousness of Heine’s texts. The result was a reading which conveyed the extremes — desolate depths and ephemeral lightness — but did not always capture the ‘in-between’ realms of earthly passion and natural human feeling.

After a turbulent ‘Der Atlas’, where Biss’s tempestuous opening evoked the bitter fury of Atlas, who must bear the whole world’s sorrow, Schubert‘s Ihr bild’ (‘Her picture’) established an eerie pathos during the sparse opening, the singular line shaped with insight and effect, before blooming to simple joy: “A wonderful smile played/ about her lips”. The dark intensity of the concluding despairing cry, “I have lost you!”, was transmuted into a casual, balladeer-like air in ‘Das Fischermädschen’ (‘The fishermaiden’), Biss’s subtle rubatos urging the compound rhythms to a gentle pianissimo close. ‘Die Stadt’ was pure Gothic melodrama, Padmore final utterances laden with resentment and regret. The slow tempo of the final song, ‘Der Doppelgänger’ (‘The wraith’) enhanced the mood of fearful oppression and inner torment.

Padmore’s Dichterliebe was characterised by melodic eloquence and expressive earnestness. His affecting whisper, “Doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich”, in ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ (‘When I look into your eyes’) was disturbingly pathetic and wretched. In contrast, ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ (‘In the Rhine, the holy river’) juxtaposed majesty with still quietude. The tenor’s deep register in ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (‘I bear no grudge’) was a little obscured by the piano accompaniment but Padmore made much of the text in the concluding verse, as the poet-narrator witnesses “the serpent gnawing your heart”, and the passionate intensity of the accelerating piano postlude, running headlong into the subsequent ‘Und wüßten’s die Blumen’ (‘If the little flowers knew’) was thrilling. Indeed, the links and juxtapositions in the narrative structure were effectively defined, as when the hard disillusionment at the close of ‘Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen’ (‘A boy loves a girl’) — which began with a poignant silence — hastened into the shifting colours of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ (‘One bright summer morning’).

Biss was an alert and energised accompanist, underpinning ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube’ (‘Rose, lily, dove’) with an airy, springy buoyancy, while the trailing arpeggios of ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen were clear and delicate, perfectly evoking the speaker’s dissolving tears in the piano postlude. In ‘Aus alten Märchen’ (‘A white hand beckons’) Biss’s staccato dotted rhythms conjured an elfin sprightliness; the performers used the slower tempo of the final two verses to convey the unattainability of the singer’s dream.

In the closing song, ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ (‘The bad old songs’), Padmore adopted a powerful and rhetorical theatricality, culminating in an anguished fall, coloured by diminished harmony: “Die sollen den Sarg fortragen,/ Und senken in’s Meer hinab;” They shall bear the coffin away,/ and sink it deep into the sea;”).

Preceding the Heine sequences, soprano Camilla Tilling gave an exciting performance of Alban Berg’s early songs, Sieben frühe Lieder. Tilling appreciated the luxuriousness and sensuality of these diverse songs, warming and brightening her tone at emotional highpoints — as in the opening ‘Nacht’ (‘Night’) which creeps in with gentle gracefulness and blossoms to convey the singer’s awe as “Weites Wundererland ist aufgetan” (“A vast wonderland opens up”). Similarly, in the Brahmsian ‘Die Nachtigall’ (‘The Nightingale’) the “sweet sound of her echoing song” resonated sonorously around the hall. Tilling’s tone acquired a glossy sheen in ‘Schilflied’ (‘Reed song’) to suggest the enlivening effect of the poet’s inner thoughts, while in ‘Liebesode’ (‘Ode to love’) she called on more burnished colours to complement the piano’s chromatic harmonies and portray the ecstatic dreams of the sleeping lovers.

Biss began the recital with a wonderfully imaginative performance of Schumann’s Gesänge der Frühe, responsive to the diverse moods of the individual movements — from the poetic simplicity of the exquisite voicing in ‘Im ruhigen tempo’ to the hymn-like tranquillity of ‘Im Anfange ruhiges’. Biss’s ability to use texture and timbre to communicate meaning was impressive: the rhythmic propulsion of ‘Belebt, nicht zu rasch, the minor key cascades and understated rubatos of ‘Bewegt’ and the final airy chord of ‘Lebhaft’ spoke directly, with immediacy and emotion.

Claire Seymour


Camilla Tilling, soprano; Mark Padmore, tenor; Jonathan Biss, piano. Wigmore Hall, London, Thursday 11 October 2012.


Schumann: Gesänge der Frühe Op.133
Berg: Sieben frühe Lieder
Schubert: Heine Lieder from Schwanengesang D957
Schumann: Dichterliebe Op.48