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Reviews

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall
13 Dec 2017

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

The journey is always the same, and never the same. As Ian Bostridge remarks, at the end of his prize-winning book Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, when the wanderer asks Der Leiermann, “Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?”, in the final song of Winterreise, the ‘crazy but logical procedure would be to go right back to the beginning of the whole cycle and start all over again’.

Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Mark Padmore

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

Such thoughts were in my mind at the start of this recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida. As the musicians walked onto the Wigmore Hall platform and an expectant hush descended, I felt a wonderful sense of anticipation tinged with tension: the journey through the twenty-four songs of Winterreise is so familiar, and yet if, at the start of a performance, we know where we are heading we have no idea of how we are going to get there. Nor, paradoxically, what - emotionally, psychologically - our final destination will be.

On this occasion, it was not a journey during which we were buffeted by icy blasts which blew the hats from our heads. The rustling branches, raging streams, rattling chains and barking dogs were finely etched but seemed to herald from a world at one remove - a distant dreamscape into which Padmore and Uchida gently but irresistibly pulled us. As the embracing chill deepened and the wanderer’s tears froze upon the cold flakes of snow, we seemed to be travelling ever deeper into an ‘interior’ landscape of detachment and emptiness: time slowed, movement stilled, the ‘real’ world dissipated into imaginative introspection. When Padmore’s wanderer was lured by the will-o’-the-wisp into the deep rocky chasm, his indifference - ‘How to find a way out does not greatly concern me. I’m used to going astray’ (‘Wie ich einen Ausgang finder,/ Liegt nicht schwer mir in dem Sinn./Bin gewohnt das irregehen’) - was dangerously tempting and undeniable. After all, he sang, ‘Every path leads to one goal’ (’S fürht ja jeder Weg zum Ziel’).

Padmore and Uchida were perfect partners, as they coaxed us into an alienation which seemed to be quietly accepted rather than angrily resisted. Both perform with a delicacy and care that is underpinned by a core of steel. Padmore’s vocal control - the evenness of line and colour, the immaculate phrasing, the meticulous articulation of the text - was complemented by Uchida’s crystalline sculpting of the wintry mind-scape.

Indeed, at times the piano seemed to be bearing the emotional weight of the cycle, particularly as Padmore’s tenor became more withdrawn, almost blanched in the later songs. His soft head voice had an almost hypnotic beauty, beguiling us into the bewildered isolation of ‘Erstarrung’ (Numbness) - ‘Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find a green grass?’ (‘Wo find’ ich eine Blüte,/Wo find’ ich grünes Gras?’) - and making us feel both the pain of perplexed wretchedness in ‘Einsmakeit’ (Loneliness) and the comfort of a dream’s sanctuary in ‘Frühlingstraum’ (Dream of Spring). There was contrast, creating a sense of progression, between the shapely legato of the young man’s farewells to his ‘sweetest love’ in the opening song, and the shrouded pianissimos of the later songs. In ‘Täuschung’ (Delusion), Padmore’s ghostly tenor conjured a disturbing terror as the wanderer is lured from the path by the ‘garish guile’ of a dancing light which promises friendship and warmth beyond the ice and night.

But, there were moments where I missed vocal weight, particularly in the lower range, and variety of tone: in ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) where the plunging vocal leaps and dark descent convey the wanderer’s submission to sorrow; in the desperate plea - ‘O crow, let me at last see faithfulness unto death!’ (Krähe, lass mich endliich she/Treue bis zum Grabe!’) at the close of ‘Die Krähe’.

Uchida synthesised the musical architecture and emotional trajectory, demonstrating a remarkable insight into the structural coherence of Schubert’s cycle, articulating the expressive details with wonderful judiciousness. The opening chords of ‘Gute Nacht’ were paradoxically both reticent and resolute, becoming almost imperceptibly more firm as the wanderer’s resolve hardens, pausing for the barest moment before the final stanza, where a prevailing tension in the piano’s tread, underlined by Padmore’s vocal intensification in the closing line, belied the deceptive shift to the major mode.

The limpidity of Uchida’s delineation of the frozen tears of ‘Gefrorne Trähe’; the coolness of the dark meandering at the start of ‘Erstarrung’; the perfectly judged triplets of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ intimating the murmuring currents beneath the stream’s silent surface; the incontestable blast at the opening of ‘Rückblick’ (A backward glance) which pushed the wanderer ever onwards: such masterful musical story-telling was both astonishing and utterly absorbing. In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree), the delicate breeze which nudged the branches at the start became a bitterer force at the close, the piano’s taut dotted rhythms seeming to stab cruelly at the wanderer in the final verse, taunting him with the promise of rest. Contrastingly, there seemed to be no pulse at all in the first two bars of ‘Irrlicht’, as if the piano’s four-notes came from ‘elsewhere’, an embodiment of the wander’s delusions.

The harmony of spirit between singer and pianist was compelling. In ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), the rhythmic tension between voice and accompaniment was sensitively controlled, and Padmore’s heightening of the repeated last line of each stanza was underscored by the swelling of the piano’s richer chords and Uchida’s expressive shaping of the return to the minor key. ‘Frühlingstraum’ balanced frighteningly on the edge of an abyss, hovering between reality and fantasy, pausing in silence when the screaming ravens had woken the dreaming wanderer, before Uchida resumed the slow, rocking of the dream-world for which he longs - the battle for mental stability subtly but sharply dramatized in musical terms. The clarity of the interplay of voice and piano in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The Signpost) made the piano’s left-hand ornaments speak eloquently beneath Padmore’s beautifully even high line, Uchida retreating to a barely-there pianissimo in the final verse as the wanderer gazes at the road he must travel and ‘from which no man has ever returned’ (Die noch Keiner ging zurück).

The performers’ vision cohered most powerfully in the final four songs. The slow sombreness of ‘Das Wirthaus’ (The inn) was thrust aside by the desperate wilfulness of ‘Muth’ (Courage), but it was the exquisite, gentle warmth - almost shocking after the preceding unrelenting coldness - of Uchida’s introductory phrase in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom song) that was so striking; as was the way the yearning of the vocal line faded to quiet hopelessness, as the piano’s attempted assertiveness slipped into resignation. When Padmore asked the cycle’s final question, ‘Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?’, slight warmth adding urgent need to the rising plea, Uchida’s reply - strong at first, then diminishing into silence - seemed to suggest that this wanderer would indeed find his peace ‘elsewhere’.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Schubert: Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11th December 2017.

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