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Performances

22 Sep 2019

A revelatory Die schöne Müllerin from Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout

‘By the year 2006, half the performances of the piano music of Haydn, Mozart and the early Beethoven will be played on replicas of 18th-century instruments. Then I’d give it another 20 or 30 years for the invasion of period instruments to have taken over late Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin and Schumann as well. If that prediction seems far out to you, consider how improbable it seemed in 1946 that by the mid-’70s Bach on the harpsichord would have developed from exoticism to norm.’

Die schöne Müllerin: Mark Padmore (tenor) and Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Wigmore Hall, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Mark Padmore (tenor)

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve

 

Michael Steinberg’s prognosis, expressed in The Boston Globe in July 1976, is taking rather longer to be fulfilled than the eminent classical music critic, writer and lecturer imagined. But, this performance of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin by Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout at Wigmore Hall will surely have done much to win converts to the cause which Steinberg described over 40 years ago as a ‘Fortepiano Revolution’.

Standing at the centre of the Wigmore Hall platform, the grand fortepiano from the workshop of Christoph Kern (located in Freiburg im Breisgau in the Upper Rhine plain) was a beautiful sight to behold, its glossy chestnut-cherry colour wood gleaming with an elegant grain, its graceful curves evincing a quiet stylishness and assurance.

As Wilhelm Müller’s tale of the young miller’s journey - from awakening and hope through delusion to rejection, despair and death unfolded - Bezuidenhout revealed the expressive responsibility with which Schubert endows the fortepiano part in ways that, for this listener at least, were quite revelatory. The lightness of the sound was coloured by a judiciously applied sharpness of attack, the clarity animated by such alertness, the bass line robust but lithe. This was evident from the opening bars of ‘Das Wandern’, where the low bouncing bass line and the rhythmic articulation of the rollicking right-hand figuration possessed an unusual airiness, perfectly capturing the buoyant optimism of the miller as he sets out, untroubled by desire and delighting in the rushing brook that the piano ceaseless motion embodies. Similarly, in ‘Wohin?’ Bezuidenhout was able to achieve a truly hushed pianissimo, the fluttering right-hand transparent and elegant, the syncopated bass eloquently swaying. The rapid flickers in ‘Halt!’, as the miller espies the mill among the alder trees, were gleamingly defined.

If dynamic range is not one of the fortepiano’s strengths, then Bezuidenhout showed us that the instrument does offer variety, of timbre, texture and colour. The softest passages were beautifully executed, with stylish discernment and detail. Moreover, the more rapid decay of the fortepiano’s tone seemed to become an integral expressive element. For example, the quaver-chords in the central section of ‘Am Feierabend’ were not only crystal-clear and light, but were followed by a distinct silence, the short rest evoking the slowing of the mill-wheel and the young man’s growing weariness, but also his unsettling self-doubts as he wonders if he can inspire love in the girl who has bewitched him. Similarly, at the close of ‘Danksagung an den Bach’, the gentle diminution of the postlude, with its delicate ornamentation, acquired an intimate, almost confessional, quality.

Kristian Bezuidenhout Marco Borggreve.jpgKristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano). Photo credit: Marco Borggreve.

And, it was a quality that Mark Padmore’s communication of the cycle’s musical narrative wonderfully sculpted and enhanced. Initially, this miller was perhaps not quite the carefree adventurer of Müller’s opening poems. Rather, his purposefulness already seemed tempered by a proclivity for dreamy detachment, but Padmore’s relaxed, beautifully enunciated presentation of the text had the effect of entrancingly drawing the listener into the miller’s psyche. In ‘Danksagung an den Buch’ the tenor seemed to distinguish the words spoken aloud, to us, and those that are heard only within his own mind, and the major/minor alternation was movingly expressive. The floating tenderness of the girl’s sweet ‘good night’, which the miller dreams into being at the close of ‘Am Feierabend’, effected a shift in the expressive temperature in the following ‘Der Neugierige’, the vocal fluency and prevailing ‘simplicity’ suggesting a growing self-delusion which blossomed in the following ‘Ungeduld’ in intense assertions of devotion: “Dein is mein Herz, und soll es ewig bleiben.” (My heart is yours, and shall be forever!)

The uneasy balance of confidence and anxiety dissolved, however, towards the close of ‘Des Müllers Blumen’ where the spaciousness of the fortepiano’s compound rhythms and the delicacy of Padmore’s pianissimo intimated the ‘rain of tears’ to come, in ‘Tränenregen’. Here, again, the move to the minor key in the closing verse, allied with a carefully crafted dynamic rise and retreat, powerfully communicated the miller’s piercing yearning. Such longing was transformed into the ebullient confidence of ‘Mein!’, and the tender ecstasy of ‘Pause’ in which Padmore’s sweet head-voice seemed to embody the transfiguring beauty of the miller’s lute itself, as the breeze brushes gently across its strings, and also the fragility of the miller’s illusions.

The latter were shattered with the arrival of the hunter. The miller was by turns defiant and despairing, his defeat by his romantic rival confirmed by the quasi-reluctance of the fortepiano’s staccato progressions in ‘Die leibe Farbe’ and Padmore’s ghostly, dissolving lament: “Die Heide, die heiss ich die Liebesnot,/ Mein Schatz hat’s Jagen so gern.” (I call the heath Love’s Anguish, my love’s so fond of hunting.) The ‘world beyond’ took an ever more inescapable hold. The dynamic alternations and Padmore’s subtle verbal nuances in ‘Die böse Farbe’ revealed the miller’s fragile grip on the real, while the fortepiano’s delicate pianissimo quavers at the start of ‘Trockne Blumen’ seemed to come from ‘elsewhere’. The exquisite gentleness of the vocal line in the latter made the sudden forcefulness of the close - again, a telling shift from minor to major key in the penultimate verse - all the more troubling.

One remembers that it was in 1823 that Schubert contracted syphilis, and that it was during his hospital stay that year that he composed parts of Die schöne Müllerin. The despair that he expressed in a letter to a friend, Leopold Kupelwieser, in March 1824 was poignantly evident in Padmore’s performance: ‘I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who in sheer despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain […] “My peace is gone, my heart is sore, I shall find it never and nevermore” I may well sing now, for each night, on retiring to bed, I hope I may not wake again …’

But, Padmore’s lament for what is lost was lifted by the miller’s acceptance of his mortality and by the brook’s promise of renewal and eternity: “Rest well, rest well! Close your eyes! Weary wanderer, you are home.” Despite the melody’s twists of pain, the conversation between the miller and the brook had a compelling fluency that spoke of the miller’s undeniable fate. For the final song, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, Padmore moved to the side of the stage, the emptiness at the centre confirming the miller’s death, the brook’s lullaby ethereal, beatific, calling from beyond, ever more distant until a slight warming - “Schlaf’ aus deine Freude, schlaf’ aus dein Leid!” (Rest from your joy, rest from your sorrow!”) - confirmed the miller’s peaceful union with nature.

Steinberg’s 1976 article with which this review began was a profile of the American fortepianist and scholar Malcolm Bilson, who has been one of the principal evangelists for the renaissance of the instrument. Bilson has remarked, ‘Perhaps it is wrong to put the instrument before the artist, but I have begun to feel that it must be done’. Well, perhaps. But this recital at Wigmore Hall was the occasion of a remarkable unity between the musicians and their respective instruments, an integration of sound and sense which I feel privileged to have experienced.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano)
Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 20th September 2019.

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