Grandeur and Bleakness in Mark Padmore’s Winterreise

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Winterreise: Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Lewis (piano), Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 6.2.2012 (SRT)

In a 2009 interview to coincide with their recordings of Winterreise and Die Schöne Müllerin, Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis described the cycles as “the Hamlet and King Lear of the song repertoire”. There’s no doubt that Schubert’s two great cycles stand out like granite outcrops in any singer’s inventory, but it’s Winterreise in its craggy grandeur and its unremittingly bleak view of the human condition that speaks to us all the more powerfully in our day. Hearing Padmore and Lewis perform it in the flesh can only confirm any Lieder lover’s admiration for the work, and for them as performers.

Any great performance will take the listener, like the protagonist, on a journey as the music plumbs the depths of the poet’s psyche. It takes performers of rare psychological perception to bring it adequately to life. Both these performers have many years of expertise in doing so, and it certainly shows. Theirs is very much a partnership of equals, right from the opening bars when Lewis establishes the steady tread of footsteps in the snow and Padmore half sings, half wails the three opening words, Fremd bin ich. From that point onwards their traversal of this cycle is a constant process of revealing and expanding our understanding of the poet and the music. Padmore’s great gift is of empathy: he inhabits this music and sings it from within, not as a distant observer. The beauty of his tone is extraordinary and well known, but the way he inflects or ruminates on a phrase is what brings his reading to life, such as the loving melismas on “Wein auf meiner Hoffnung Grab” in Letzte Hoffnung or the pained climax on “meinen Arme” in Erstarrung. Lewis’ playing, meanwhile, provides emotional comment that is far more than colouristic background. The hymn-like accompaniment to the scene in the graveyard, for example, the hypnotic triplets in Die Krähe, or the astonishingly suggestive chords that accompany the falling tears of Gefror’ne Tränen all add to the in-depth study of the poet’s consciousness. The jollity of the posthorn in Die Post, meanwhile, is palpably false.

It is from details like these that a great performance is built, but the greatness of Lewis and Padmore’s interpretation adds up to more than the sum of such parts. After 75 minutes in their company, these performers move us as an audience into new ways of hearing and thinking about these songs, taking us on a journey almost as powerful as the protagonist’s. Der Lindenbaum, for example, begins with the optimistic rustling of the branches in the piano but moves, via Padmore’s wonderfully inflected words, to the poet’s acceptance of his isolation and loneliness. Frühlingstraum works in a similar manner, where Padmore’s voice conveys the irony of the beautiful dream contrasting with the horror of reality. The climax of the cycle comes towards the end with Der Wegweiser and Das Wirthaus, with their still, poignant acceptance of the poet’s loss, Padmore’s singing ardently sympathetic while Lewis plots out the situation with chorale-like simplicity. And what about that ending? Who exactly is the hurdy-gurdy man? Is he the poet’s first encounter with a human being since the start of the cycle, thus suggesting the possibility of his rehabilitation into the community, or is he the thinly disguised personification of death? Padmore’s pale, emaciated voice, drained of all colour at this point, left me in no doubt as to his answer.

Simon Thompson