28 Jun 2020

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

For, this series of 20 lunchtime recitals, live streamed via the Wigmore Hall website and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, has been very much more than a ‘good thing’: the performances have not ‘just’ been an opportunity to enjoy remarkable music and musicianship, technical mastery and expressive commitment, but also astonishingly, though not surprisingly, fulfilling and uplifting, and perhaps ground-breaking too.

And, as Artistic Director, John Gilhooly, reassures us, although Wigmore Hall will fall silent for a few months - to allow a clearer picture to emerge as to how long this crisis will continue for live performance, and for musicians, and decisions about the autumn and winter programmes can be taken - the doors of Wigmore Hall will re-open and welcome audiences back for live performances.

This recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida was, though, the final concert in this wonderful series, so it was ‘an end’ of sorts. Schubert’s Winterreise is also a journey towards an ‘end’ - rest, death, the abyss, perhaps renewal. Initially, though any opportunity to hear these two musicians perform Schubert’s song-cycle is always to be grasped, I wondered if the programming was not a little too bleak: hope rather despair, resurrection rather than oblivion, is what we long for and need. Moreover, listening at mid-day at the peak of a mini midsummer heatwave didn’t seem the most helpful circumstances in which to empathise with the chilling introspection of the traveller’s winter journey across the icy landscape, into his own psyche and beyond into nothingness.

But, I need not have feared. The soft and surreptitious tread of the piano at the start of ‘Gute Nacht’ - Uchida somehow managed to convey the slightest of propulsive swellings through the first two bars of piano breathing - was both an ending and a beginning: a gentle farewell to the present and the commencement of a journey through an emotional terrain, ever more extreme. That’s not to suggest that there was anything overly mannered about Padmore’s and Uchida’s approach. Quite the opposite. And, it was that very clarity and directness, judgement and sensitivity, that made their performance so powerful, almost overwhelmingly so, given the context. The empty seats in the Hall, the wanderer’s isolation and alienation, the cycle’s movement towards an existential void: the nothingness accrued with terrible inevitability, a terrifying echo of the cultural vacuum that occasionally casts an grim shadow on the nation’s horizon, despite Gilhooly’s confidence that the arts, which “are central to the international standing, character and wellbeing of the nation” will, play “a huge role in our national recovery”.

Padmore and Uchida brought every quality of their musicianship that we know and love, to bear upon this music. Padmore’s tenor, ever sweet, with an occasional slightness or strain at the top poignantly emphasising the protagonist’s physical and mental struggle, enunciated and inflected Wilhelm Müller’s poems with meticulous precision and perceptiveness. Uchida’s playing was thoughtful and unrushed, the elegant clarity of her playing enabling her to paint crystalline images and imagery.

There was so much to admire and which intrigued, so much detail which compelled, and so many aspects of this performance that were deeply moving, that it is almost impossible to know where to begin, or what to select, and what to omit. There was Padmore’s beautiful legato and tapered phrasing in ‘Gute Nacht’, and the sudden forcefulness and anger at the start of the third stanza which then diminished into the lingering softness of the final major-key stanza which acquired a patina of even deeper sadness from such contrast; and, a similarly dramatic and restless contrast of floating leise and assertive laute in ‘Die Wetterfahne’, and the leanness of Uchida’s textures - the snatching away of the final trill felt cruel and hard. Fire and ice were similarly, via a wonderfully expressive rubato, counterposed in ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, but always the momentum was onwards, unstoppable, frightening.

‘Erstarrung’ swirled with a torment born on the wind and through the soul: I think I held my breath from start to finish. With ‘Die Lindenbaum’ we entered a consoling vision, the fragile unreality of which was pointed by Uchida’s soft steel-edged interjections, and which was swept aside with terrifying brusqueness by the blast which blows the hat from the wanderer’s head, leaving just a tantalising, teasing dream of what might have been. I don’t think I’ve ever heard such a unity of longing and frustration, pain and fury, flood through the final phrase of ‘Wasserflut’: “Da ist meiner Leibsten Haus.” Similarly, Uchida’s wonderfully/terribly dry staccato in ‘Auf dem Flusse’ made the musical imagery of the swelling under the crust of ice that coats the river - as the voice releases its fears, supported by the rich piano bass, now released from its fetters - almost impossible to bear.

With ‘Irrlicht’ - snatched fragments, poignant octaves, richer indulgences - the disintegration of the protagonist’s wholeness seemed to begin. Have the cocks and ravens that disrupt the dreams of spring ever felt more devilish? Or the whispered, silken retreat to a fantasy of love’s renewal more beguilingly dangerous? The daring temporal freedom in ‘Einsamkeit’ pressed home the self-destructive emotional excess which the wanderer bears; in ‘Der greise Kopf’, wisdom and wistfulness only just repressed upswells of painful emotion, and the darkness lingered in the uncomfortable shadows of the low-lying ‘Die Krähe’.

Padmore did, entirely forgivably, tire a little, and some of the latter songs were a touch less ‘accurate’, but this often lent them a vulnerability that was deeply affecting: in the face of the crisp rattles and barks of ‘Im Dorfe’, the protagonist’s dismissal of the dogs’ warning, and of the invitation to dream, seemed all the more dangerous. What did not ever lessen was Padmore’s acuity with regard to verbal weight and meaning: there was a heart-wrenching moment of self-awareness in ‘Täuschung’ when the wanderer recognises and condemns his own susceptibility to dreams and hope - this seemed to propel us into the abyss. ‘Das Wirthaus’ is marked sehr langsam and Uchida played the piano introduction as if she could not take a single step further - I could feel the suffocating weight on my own shoulders - and then through the burden floated the blanched but ever sweet vocal line, condemning the signs that invite travellers into cool inn.

In ‘Mut’, Padmore seemed to push forward more than Uchida expected, and now it was the pianist who seemed a little weary, though this only added to the verisimilitude. I shut my eyes during ‘Die Nebensonnen’, always the most wonderful moment of transfiguration. And, then, only the hurdy-gurdy man stood between us and nothingness. Has the imagery of ‘Der Leiermann’ every seemed more apt or painful? - “with numb fingers he grinds away as best he can”, “barefoot on the ice … his little plate remains always empty”, “No-one wants to hear him, no-one looks at him … the dogs growl”.

For the first time in this series, the silence after the music had dissolved into the void was truly appropriate and profound. But, the end of ‘Der Leiermann’ seems to beckon us into a journey of renewal, “Shall I go with you? … Will you, to my songs, play your hurdy-gurdy?” asks the exhausted wanderer. Are we propelled back to the opening of ‘Gute Nacht’, in media res? Perhaps the piano’s relentless steps have never stopped - so out of the void will come music? The hurdy-gurdy man’s abyss may at first seem an alarming metaphor for the imminent silencing of the nation’s cultural life, but perhaps his music is infinite?

Padmore himself, in his opening remarks, reminded us of Brecht’s motto to his Svendborg Poems (1939):

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

And in an essay, ‘Undefeated Despair’, written in 2006 in response to the growing crisis in Palestine, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ As the lights go out at Wigmore Hall for an unknowable length of time, let us hope, and be certain, that the bright times, and the singing about them, will return to our lives soon.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Franz Schubert - Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 26th June 2020.