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Mark Padmore in conversation
14 Sep 2017

Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, at the start of my conversation with Mark Padmore, that I had not previously been aware of the annual music festival held in the small Cotswolds town of Tetbury, which was founded in 2002 and to which Padmore will return later this month to perform a recital of lieder by Schubert and Schumann with pianist Till Fellner.

Mark Padmore in conversation

An interview with Claire Seymour

Above: Mark Padmore

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


Regional music and arts festivals continue to proliferate, so I ask Padmore what it is that makes the four-day festival at Tetbury distinctive, and rewarding for a performer. He explains that he welcomes the opportunity to perform in a beautiful venue, the Georgian Gothic Paris Church of St Mary the Virgin whose magnificent spire dominates the town’s skyline: a venue which, being outside the mainstream of music-making, does not bring with it any particular expectations or conventions, and which will be filled with those who are perhaps not regular concert-goers but are eager for new musical experiences.

Alongside the festival’s four concerts, audiences can enjoy pre-concert interviews and lectures, and prior to Padmore’s recital Dr Natasha Loges, Assistant Head of Programmes at the Royal College of Music, will present a lecture entitled ‘The Hidden Magic of Lieder’. I wonder whether the magic of lieder is really ‘hidden’, and whether it’s especially important to communicate this ‘magic’ to new audiences. Padmore considers that lieder can sometimes be problematic for English audiences, partly because of the language, and recognises the importance of performing in a venue where it’s possible to reach the audience and communicate the meaning of what is often complex poetry - performing Winterreise in the Barbican Hall would be an odd experience, far removed from the context in which Schubert’s cycle was first experienced. He notes that even at the Wigmore Hall, which presents more lieder recitals than any other venue in the world, there seems to be little overlap between those attending chamber music - string quartet concerts, say - and those attending recitals of song; mixed programmes comprising both chamber music and lieder have not always proved popular with audiences.

Perhaps, he reflects, one of the challenges is that with lieder it’s not the voice, or the singer, that is paramount, but the text; and it is not just the voice that communicates that text but the piano also. Padmore feels that this is particularly true in the case of Schumann, whoseDichterliebe he will sing at Tetbury. In Dichterliebe, it is often not the voice that is carrying the melody line - conveying the composer’s messages to his beloved Clara - but the piano, which often rises above the singer (who is essentially supplying the text) and articulates its own arguments. Padmore suggests that there are places where it would be possible, or inviting, to add text to the piano part: that lieder is a ‘speaking art form’.

It is the tenor’s respect for and sensitivity to the text which make him such a superb interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach, and his performances as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions so compelling - not least in Peter Sellars’s staging, or ‘ritualisation’, of the St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle which was first seen in 2010 in Salzburg and Berlin and has acquired ‘legendary’ status. Padmore will perform the St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall in March next year, when he reunites with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. I note that he is listed as both Evangelist and ‘director’, but he explains that this denotes ‘musical’ director: he will lead rehearsals, encouraging the performers to explore the work, to really listen to each other, so that they can present the Passion without a conductor. This is fundamental to Padmore’s understanding and experience of the Passions. They are chamber music and it is essential that performances are a three-way conversation - between the text, the performers and the audience - in which all three participants are equally engaged. It is not necessary - in fact it can be obstructive - to have a conductor, serving as a source of ‘interpretation’; instead, the empty space which a conductor would usually fill opens up a conduit of communication so that the singers can convey the emotions of the text, and the emotions they feel, directly to the listeners.

Padmore reflects that because the Passions are so well known we have become somewhat inured to listening to Bach. We forget that it is religious music: a recent encounter with a Bach chorus being pumped out as a sort of ecclesiastical muzak in a parish church is one example he cites of its ‘misuse’. We consume the music passively and Padmore wants to break through this passivity: to make the music dynamic and urgent, to make it mean something to the audience, to make them experience the choral cry, ‘Barrabam!’, as a response to Peter’s denial. The word he returns to is ‘attentiveness’: performers and audiences should be attentive, at all times. He comments that Sellars demanded attentiveness to the text at all moments, even visiting the tenor in his dressing room before a performance to talk through the text.

There will be more ‘story-telling’ when Padmore returns to Berlin this season, as Artist in Residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. He will perform Haydn’s Creation in the opening concert of the season and, subsequently, Robert Schumann’s secular oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, as well as chamber music concerts with members of the Berlin Philharmonic and students of the Karajan Academy. This follows Padmore’s residency with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra last season and the tenor clearly relishes the opportunity to form a ‘proper relationship’ with an orchestra. He knows the Berliners well and is looking forward to meeting, working and building relationships with the players, developing a communal expression and aiming for performances that are rooted in how we communicate. He will feel ‘at home’; something that, he reflects ruefully, the international system - and perhaps celebrity and success - doesn’t really allow.

Padmore’s season will also include some new compositions. Marking the London Sinfonietta’s 50th anniversary, in June next year the tenor will perform a new chamber piece by Tansy Davies, Cave, written in collaboration with librettist Nick Drake following their 2015 opera Between Worlds. Then, he will take part in a new opera by Thomas Larcher, whose A Padmore Cycle - settings of poems by Hans Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig - was written for the tenor in 2011.

His performances in Glyndebourne’s 2013 Billy Budd and in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the ROH earlier this year were highly acclaimed, and I ask Padmore, such a powerful ‘story-teller’, why he hasn’t been a more frequent visitor to the operatic stage. He explains that, while he loves theatre, he does not feel that there are a lot of roles which are ideal for his voice - before pre-empting my next question by commenting that Aschenbach, in Britten’s Death in Venice is on the horizon! Janáček’s operas are also appealing …

But, before that there is Schubert and Schumann. Audiences in Tetbury, Norwich, Oxford, and overseas can anticipate some compelling musical conversations.

The Tetbury Music Festival runs from 28th September to 1st October.

Claire Seymour

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