Friday 16 November 2012

Mark Padmore at the Wimbledon Music Festival

photo by Marco Borggreve
This year's International Wimbledon Music Festival includes a number of celebrity recitals and on Thursday 15 November tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Simon Lepper gave a recital of Beethoven and Schubert songs at St John's Church, Spencer Hill, Wimbledon. It was a joy to be able to hear Padmore in the relatively intimate confines of the church, and its acoustic proved to be surprisingly welcoming for lieder. The main work in the first half was Beethoven's song cycle An die ferne Geliebte with Schubert's Schwanengesang in the second half. Padmore's own short spoken introductions indicated how the cycles were linked through the Romantic concept of Sehnsucht.

Padmore and Lepper opened with a pair of Beethoven's settings of Goethe. Beethoven had great admiration for the poet and his setting of Mailied captures the delight of Goethe's words, charming with its sincerity and managing to avoid a suggestion of fatuity. Padmore sang the song quite lightly, giving full weight to the words. Neue Liebe, neues Leben is in a similar vein, again Padmore started lightly but brought it to a powerful conclusion without breaking the vocal line, on the way giving us some beautifully floated high notes.

The final song in this group was Adelaide, perhaps Beethoven's best known song. A setting of words by Friedrich von Matthison, it was Beethoven's first large-scale song and is beloved by tenor soloists. Padmore again sang lightly, with a lovely legato line, allowing the intensity of feeling to develop through nuance with only occasional strong passages for emphasis.

The first half concluded with An die ferne Geliebte, a cycle of songs setting poems by Alois Isidore Jeitteles; Beethoven's only song cycle. The songs are linked and form a continuous whole, but are not a narrative; instead the singer describes his various emotions as his sings songs to his beloved, the final song quoting the first.

That Padmore is a highly communicative singer was obvious from the first three songs in the recital, especially as he was singing from memory, as he did throughout the recital. His performance was not always overtly dramatic, and quite frequently he sang lightly but used his voice to bring a remarkable range of colour and nuance into the music. Being able to sit so close to him meant that we were also able to appreciate quite how expressive he was non-vocally as well, particularly his eyes.

For the whole of the performance of An de ferne Geliebte the words in my notes that I kept coming back to were colour, line and text. By singing quite lightly, floating the upper lines, he gave himself a base from which to emphasis details, and add subtle gradations of colour to the voice. Talking at the interval a friend said that she thought there were few singers to match Padmore in the palate of colours used when singing. The fascinating thing is that the sound he makes is, in one sense, very English but he uses this intelligently to communicate the very essence of the songs.

It helps that he brings out the text at all times. This is important in lieder and can sometimes be forgotten by younger singers; but Padmore not only enunciated with wonderfully clear diction, but conveyed the depth of the words. These were most definitely poems with music.

In describing him as singing the songs lightly, I hope that I have not given the impression that the performance was cool. Quite the contrary, there as in intensity throughout and at key points of emotion the voice flared up thrillingly.  He also has the ability to bleach his voice out in a profoundly expressive, and very bleak, way such as at the words Möchte ich sein in the second song. In the fourth song he showed how, by appearing to not do anything, he could communicate and make the big moments tell. He started the final song simply and directly, allowing Beethoven's melody to count, a performance that was simply beautiful and quite magical; then during the last verse passion wells up, and the intensity of the poets feelings are made plain.

Throughout the performance, Padmore was superbly partnered by Simon Lepper who brought out the subtleties and beauties of Beethoven's accompaniment, particularly in the way the songs are linked.

There continues to be discussion as to whether Schubert's Schwanengesang was written as a song cycle or was simply groups of songs which his publisher assembled after his death (as with Strauss's Four Last Songs). But Padmore was firmly of the view that the songs are a cycle and make a coherent whole and certainly his performance gave this stunning support.

There are poems by three different poets in the cycle, first seven songs to texts by Ludwig Rellstab then six by Heinrich Heine before a final song setting Johann Gabriel Seidl. The Heine poems are darker than the Rellstab and Schubert's settings of them pushes the songs even further.

The six Rellstab songs form a distinct group as the poet's love is clearly not reciprocated and he gradually despairs and leaves town. Padmore's performances were light and pale, with a superb clarity of line and word, but still full of colour. He brought a lovely chocolatey sound to the second song, Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior's Foreboding), presaging the darkness which would come in the second half of the cycle; the end of the song clear that the night that the Warrior looked forward to would be endless. Frühlings-Sehnsucht was taken at quite a considerable speed, but all the words were there with clarity and Lepper's fingers dazzled. But then at the end of each verse, an elegantly expressive slowing up for the last questioning word.

Ständchen was quite simply beautiful, but through nuance and through his eyes Padmore conveyed that there was a great deal happening to the poet underneath. Again in Aufenthalt all the turbulence was in Lepper's fine accompaniment, with Padmore using the words and an edge to his voice which developed to a powerful conclusion. In In die Ferne Padmore used tone and colour to bring out the haunting strangeness of the song so that with Abschied we are not surprised that something awful is going to happen. Abschied has lots of words, especially at the speed Padmore and Lepper took the song, and all the words were there in their amazing fury counterpointing the bouncing tune.

With Der Atlas (the first of the Heine settings) the performance turned darker and more intense, so that the stark simplicity of Ihr Bild had a bleakness about it which was anything but comforting. Das Fischermadchen was something of a pause in the cycle of pain, but the evocative piano and Padmore's haunted, bleached tone in Am meer were pain incarnate. Finally we reached Der Doppelganger, an astonishing poem which Schubert turned into an astonishing song which received a performance of rare power and intensity from Padmore and Lepper. But Padmore's vividness was achieved without compromising the vocal line or the text, a fine achievement indeed. After this, a simple and uncomplicated performance of Der Taubenpost (the Seidl setting), but of course it was anything but simple, Padmore nuance, colour and shading ensure that.

This was a generous, intelligent and profoundly moving recital, with a performance of Schwanengesang which will linger in the memory for some time to come. It was lovely to hear Padmore in relatively close proximity, and to hear his voice not under the stress of a big operatic role. He has a beautiful voice which he uses intelligently, but rarely relies on simply beauty in performance. Instead there is the feeling of a constant questing for the right sound and colour, and the profound sense of a connection with his audience. At all times he was superbly supported by Simon Lepper who produced some accompaniments of fine subtlety.

The Wimbledon Music Festival were lucky to have them, and the audience were highly appreciative though it was a shame that the church was not full. Next week's celebrity lieder recital is Christine Brewer with Wagner and Strauss; be there!

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