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20 Sep 2009
Die schöne Müllerin by Mark Padmore, Wigmore Hall
Schubert’s first song-cycle is a perfect choice with which to open a
new concert season, and the Wigmore Hall was packed on Friday evening in
anticipation of this recital by tenor Mark Padmore, much admired for the focus
and concentration of his ‘story-telling’, and Paul Lewis, one of
the most expressive and poetic of pianists today.
In the event, this was a controlled and precise rendition of Die schöne
Müllerin, thoughtfully conceived and executed with commitment and
integrity. The contrasts and juxtapositions of the text — as the wanderer
fluctuates between hope and desperation — were conveyed by skilfully
controlled oppositions of dynamic, tonality and tempo. Thus, a perfectly paced
and well-structured whole was enriched by carefully considered gestures: for
example, small hesitations — before Padmore’s exquisite
pianissimo of ‘Das Wasser’ in ‘Das Wandern’
(‘Journeying’), or preceding the piano’s shift to the minor
key half-way through ‘Wohin?’ (‘Where to?’), to name
but two of many such subtleties — enhanced the fluctuations between
excitement and longing, between optimism and despair. Similarly, the energy of
Lewis’s introduction to ‘Halt’ (‘Halt!’) captured
the young man’s eager exhilaration; while, the final, weighty, assertive
chords of ‘Ungeld’ (‘Impatience’) and
‘Mein!’ (‘Mine!’) conveyed the surety, and
misguidedness, of his conviction that “Dein ist mein Herz, und sol les
ewig bleiben” (“My heart is yours, and shall be forever!”).
Moreover, a sudden accelerando at the concluding line of ‘Die
böse farbe’ (‘The hateful colour’) communicated the agony
felt at departure, underlying the impassioned cry, “Zum Abschied deine
Hand!” (“give me your hand in parting!)
Indeed, in many ways the performers seemed to have exchanged their
conventional roles: from the rich assertive gestures of the opening bars of
‘Das Wandern’, it was evident that it was Lewis’s
accompaniment that would propel the musical and dramatic continuity. The piano
was both scene-setter and protagonist: rippling with the recurring arpeggiac
echoes of the brook, Lewis’s accompaniment both depicted the scenes and
source of the tragedy and embodied the inner turmoil of the wanderer’s
mind as he struggles with the fickle ‘murmuring friend’ which lulls
him to his Fate - a fusion of inner and outer, of man and the natural
environment which is truly Romantic.
In contrast, Padmore seemed less implicated, more objective, a teller of a
tale. Making frequent use of a fragile, haunting head voice, he may have kept
his distance from the young lover’s turmoil, but that is not to imply
that sang inexpressively. The tenor’s restraint in the final lines of
‘Pause’ — “Ist es der Nachklang meiner Liebespein/Sol
les das Vorspiel neuer Lieder sein?” (“Is this the echo of my
love’s torment/Or the prelude to new songs?”) — evoked the
bitter-sweet nature of the young man’s love, and his growing
self-knowledge. The octave rise on “Leibesnot”,
(“Anguish’), in ‘Die liebe Farbe’ (‘The beloved
colour’), the touching intensification and colouring of “mein
Herz” in ‘Ungeduld’, the guileless tenderness of the
timorous, pained questions “Wie welk, wie blaβ? … Wovon so
naβ?” (“Why faded, why pale? … What makes you
wet?”) in ‘Trockne Blumen’ (‘Withered Flowers’)
similarly demonstrated an impressive and coherent attention to detail.
Yet, one could not help feeling that Padmore’s delivery was rather
limited in tonal range, and thus in emotional variety. Over-use of a withdrawn,
plaintive timbre, together with a marked absence of vibrato throughout,
resulted in a weakening of dramatic impact, as familiarity weakened the meaning
and effect. Padmore’s diction, however, was excellent, even in the
‘busier’ numbers, such as ‘Der Jäger’ (‘The
Hunter’) where the pace and energetic accompaniment were no hindrance to
clarity. But, both performers seemed more at ease in the quieter, tranquil
songs, and here the ensemble was outstanding. Lewis’s understated
repeating rhythmic patterns in the closing two songs created an air of
inevitability as the distant call of the brook itself lured the wanderer, and
the audience, to its depths.
This was a genuinely unified conception and performance. One may like
one’s Schubert more fervent, more wrought or more turbulent, but Padmore
and Lewis offered a reading of clarity and cohesion, shaping and sustaining the
emotional and narrative journey, and creating moments of great sadness,
serenity and beauty along the way.