Sunday, 13 September 2009

Padmore/Lewis - Die schöne Müllerin, 12 September 2009

Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin, D 795

Mark Padmore (tenor)
Paul Lewis (piano)

At least so far as the vocal part was concerned, this was a peculiar account of Schubert’s first song cycle. There were some very good things in Mark Padmore’s performance. I shall come to those a little later, but I could not help wondering whether his was really an appropriate voice for this repertoire. Of course, there is room for all sorts of approaches, a principal distinction being whether to use a tenor or a lower voice, transposed, allowing artists as different as Peter Pears and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Fritz Wunderlich and Matthias Goerne, to put forward their interpretations; the cycle has even occasionally been borrowed by female singers, for instance Brigitte Fassbaender. The recording Pears made with Britten certainly does not present a typically German voice, of whatever variety, yet it works very well, not least on account of Britten’s superlative contribution, but also thanks to Pears’s marriage of verbal and musical understanding.

Padmore’s voice comes closer to Pears than to the other singers I have mentioned, but not only is it very much the sound of an ‘English tenor’, it is limited in tone, or at least it was here, and eschews vibrato to an extent that helps one understand why he is an Evangelist of choice amongst the ‘authenticke’ brigade. Use of the head voice was too frequent to make any particular point; it ended up merely sounding fey. Indeed, archness was markedly more characteristic of this performance than vernal freshness. Whilst diction was generally excellent, there were a few occasions when vowels sounded a little odd, often though not always when umlauts were involved. I was a little surprised to hear ‘heller’ for ‘frischer’ in Wohin? and ‘sagt’ for spricht in Am Feierabend, but too much could easily be made of such matters. More worryingly, there were several instances of questionable intonation.

However, there were, as I said, highly commendable aspects to Padmore’s performance too. His experience as an Evangelist often told, in the very real sense one had of a narrator – often more a narrator than a participant, it might be added, certainly more so than, say, with Peter Schreier. Padmore’s attention to the words themselves was often exemplary. To take one example, in Ungeduld, his leaning into the word ‘Dein’ on ‘Dein ist mein Herz’, conveyed a delivery of the heart from our hero to his beloved. The questioning tone at the end of Halt! really did give a sense of a participant, asking the inscrutable brook what it meant. Perhaps if the young man had been able to understand then what, if anything, he was being told, things might have turned out differently, but such is Fate.

Where this performance truly scored, however, was in the contribution from Paul Lewis at the piano. Lewis imparted a powerful, inexorable continuity to the unfolding drama, not unlike the contribution of Wagner’s orchestral Greek chorus. The opening number, Das Wandern, was a case in point, the piano part properly muscular, to borrow an apposite adjective from Gavin Plumley’s excellent programme notes. Moreover, one heard a subtle yet undeniable growth in intensity through the stanzas of this strophic song, initially matched by Padmore, though the latter drew back at the end: less, it seemed, on account of a response to the text, but rather because his vocal reserves demanded it. The presence of the brook was strong throughout so many of the songs; this, one truly felt, was another character, perhaps even the most important character of all. Another character was no less impressively, if fleetingly, introduced with the huntsman of Der Jäger. Impatience (Ungeduld) was immediately present in the song of that name, whilst the harmonic shifts in Morgengruß registered piercingly, yet without inverted commas. I was especially taken with, and disturbed by, the harmonic premonitions of Schumann to which Lewis pointed in Tränenregen. The echt-Schubertian melancholic tread of Die liebe Farbe responded in equal measure to the verbal text – suicide beckons – and to the repeated-note hints of Chopin (the so-called ‘Raindrop’ Prelude). This made me suspect that Lewis might have an interestingly Classical perspective upon Chopin’s music. One heard the Romantic horns of Die böse Farbe, whilst, in Trockne Blumen, the piano ensured that the flowers were truly withered, Finally, one could hardly resist the attraction of the waters in the closing Des Baches Wiegenlied, drawn in as the hero himself.

Padmore and Lewis are to record all three Schubert song cycles for Harmonia Mundi. Fans of either artist or of both will doubtless wish to hear their interpretations. Theirs did not, however, seem to me an ideal partnership. It occurred to me that Padmore might have been happier with, or at least more suited to, a fortepiano performance. Certainly his performance had its virtues. But listen, for instance, to Wunderlich and one hears such ease with the music, a performance that does not need to underline every verbal nuance; the music and the sheer beauty of the voice permit the words to speak for themselves. Listen to Goerne, especially his second recording with Christoph Eschenbach, and one hears something altogether darker, daring to look into an expressionist abyss. There is room for both and for much else besides. A Müllerin for devotees of Choral Evensong perhaps has its place, but it is not for me.