Mark Padmore sings Schubert

Mark Padmore (c) Marco BorggreveTwo magical evenings at the Wigmore Hall, thanks to a friend’s generosity (thank you, Paula)… Mark Padmore (tenor) sang Schubert’s two great song cycles, Die Schöne Müllerin (‘The Fair Maid of the Mill’) and Winterreise (Winter Journey).

After fifty years of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, we are used to hearing our Schubert songs sung by a baritone, in low keys, with perhaps exaggerated ‘expression’ and rather muddy piano accompaniments (played on a clanky modern Steinway, of course, rather than Schubert’s very light Viennese pianos).  To hear them sung by a tenor is a revelation:  there is a lightness and airiness in the vocal lines, with top notes becoming true clarion high points in the drama, offset by Mark Padmore’s warm baritonal lower register (the vocal range of these songs, particularly in Winterreise, is enormous).  And the lighter texture of the accompaniments in higher keys is a breath of fresh air, even on the modern piano.

Mark Padmore is better known for his ‘early music’ – Rameau, Lully, Handel, and above all the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.  So Schubert is a big step into the unknown for us, if not for him (in his illuminating programme notes he tells us that he has known and studied these cycles all his life).  His performances were masterly.  His stillness and concentration were most affecting, and frequently appropriate to the near-catatonia of Schubert’s first-person protagonists;  his range of expression was powerful and moving, the more so by being firmly controlled and never degenerating into ‘emoting’ or drawing attention to the singer instead of the song.

The cycles of poems themselves are extraordinary.  By the otherwise little-known Wilhelm Müller, they both depict the progress of a rejected lover towards his doom.  Schubert’s settings are perfectly matched to the poems:  time and time again, one can only marvel at the simplicity of means by which Schubert finds exactly the right ‘hook’ – introductory or accompanying phrase – to set the scene and tone of each song precisely, with the least possible fuss or expenditure of notes.  Die Schöne Müllerin has obvious examples – mill-wheels turning, babbling brooks, hunting horns;  Winterreise is more subtle, but a more extraordinary achievement – the weathervane, the mail coach with its post horn and trotting horses, the crow, the falling leaves, and particularly ‘in the village’, where with just a bass trill Schubert manages to conjure up the sleepy village with its barking dogs and uneasily dreaming inhabitants.  And the cumulative effect of each cycle (well over an hour long) is overwhelming.

Much discussion in the car going home (thank you, Trasks!) about what masterpieces these cycles are, and whether Schubert (who died aged only 31) was really the greatest composer who ever lived. 

Mark Padmore’s accompanists were worthy partners in the enterprise.  Die Schöne Müllerin had the impossibly young-looking Till Fellner, a Viennese pianist I had not come across before.  His straight-down-the-line accompaniments, clean, clear and spotlessly accurate, were just right for the superficially simple thought-processes of the earlier cycle.   For Winterreise, we were in the hands of Julius Drake, who has grown into one of the wisest and most satisfying accompanists of the current generation (IMHO!  but feel free to quote me on the posters!).  It has been a pleasure to watch his progress (particularly up the road at the Blackheath Halls).  His concentration, variety of tone colour and depth of understanding were exemplary.  So too was his pacing – knowing when to ‘segue’ from one song to another, when to allow a pause for reflection, when to hold on a final chord for an agonizingly long time while the resonances of the song sink in.

The Wigmore Hall is a wonderful crucible for such intensely concentrated evenings.  One can’t help imagining the generations of amazing performances that have been soaked up by the fabric of the building…

I hesitated to write this up as I felt I could not come near doing justice to these performances.  I don’t think I can, but I am happy at least to record my appreciation.  There is another recital on Saturday – Schubert’s Schwanengesang and some Beethoven – which I can’t go to.  In a way, I shall be sorry to miss it, but I’m more than happy just to have heard these two – I don’t know whether I could take any more!  A profoundly moving experience.

photo by (c) Marco Borggreve — from Mark Padmore’s website

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2 Comments on “Mark Padmore sings Schubert”

  1. Hi Jonathan!
    Trying to find a recording of Mark Padmore singing Die Schöne Müllerin with Till Fellner at the piano. I heard them on the Swedish Radio tonight, a recording from a cocert in Schwarzenberg 16 June 2008. Fantastic! And I’m an alto, so I could sing along!! Do you know if there are any CDs to buy with this concert or these two performing Die Schöne Müllerin? I would be very happy if you could answer me. Thanks a milion!! Anna

    • jonathanburton Says:

      Hi Anna,

      Here is an interesting interview you might like:

      I have a feeling Mark Padmore hasn’t recorded any Schubert lieder yet, as this is new repertoire for him. I hope he does, as it was wonderful.

      I love the idea of you singing along to him. There are a few other tenors who have recorded the cycle: Peter Schreier, Ian Bostridge, Christoph Prégardien, Fritz Wunderlich (classic recording) — none of them as moving as Mark Padmore.

      My own favourite recording is Benjamin Luxon, but he’s a baritone of course.
      There’s a new trend for mezzos to sing Schubert song cycles: Alice Coote, Nathalie Stutzmann. And Andreas Scholl, who is a counter-tenor!

      Good luck and all good wishes… Jonathan

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