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Mark Padmore [Photo by Marco Borggreve]
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.

Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin

Mark Padmore tenor, Paul Lewis piano
Wigmore Hall, London. 12 September 2009

Above: Mark Padmore [Photo by Marco Borggreve]


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.

Claire Seymour

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