Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis: An Exceptional Schubert Partnership

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Lewis (piano). St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 9.5.2012 (JQ)

Der Einsame D.800
An die Laute D.905
Abendstern D.806
Die Sterne D.939
Des Fischers Liebesglück D.933
Der Jüngling an der Quelle D.300
Herbst D.945 (Rellstab)
Dass sie hier gewesen! D.775
Sei mir gegrüsst! D.741

Schwanengesang D.957

After his marvellous piano recital the previous evening (review), Paul Lewis returned to St James’ Church for more Schubert, this time partnering the tenor, Mark Padmore. This was an eagerly awaited recital as far as I was concerned. I had heard them give a gripping account of Winterreise in Cheltenham a few years ago (review) and I’d been equally impressed by their subsequent CD of the cycle (review).  After recording an excellent CD of Die schöne Müllerin (review) they went on to make a splendid version of Schwanengesang, which was released last year (review). The opportunity to hear these perceptive artists, who seem to work so well together, performing a programme including Schubert’s posthumous collection of lieder in recital was too good to miss.

The programme comprised, in Mark Padmore’s words, “a compendium of late Schubert songs”. In the first half we were treated to nine individual songs. Right from the start, in Der Einsame, which is in Schubert’s ‘easy’ lyrical vein, there was ample evidence of the outstanding musicianship of both artists. There was a beguiling lilt to the performance with both performers displaying some delicate touches. In An die Laute Lewis’s playing was nicely suggestive of a lutenist plucking his instrument.  Abendstern was a particular delight: in the intimate acoustic of the church Mark Padmore was able to float the long, plaintive vocal lines beautifully.  Die Sterne showed imaginative artistry. On paper the “chugging” piano accompaniment looks penny-plain. However, Lewis’s very natural yet telling employment of subtle rubato transformed the piano part and brought it to life while Padmore’s care for the words ensured that this simple strophic song came over most effectively. In Der Jüngling an der Quelle Padmore delivered a gorgeous vocal line while Lewis’s light, rippling piano part was a delight. In the spare, searching Dass sie hier gewesen! Padmore’s plangent tone conveyed a real sense of longing.

Excellent though the first half had been it was the performance of Schwanengesang that brought the greatest artistic rewards of the evening. One difference between the two halves was telling, I thought. In the first half Mark Padmore had sung from copies of the music – possibly the lieder in question were not from his core repertoire – but he sang Schwanengesang from memory. In the earlier songs he had by no means been fettered by the copy but now there was no physical barrier at all between him and his audience and the increased communication and eye contact made a palpable difference.

The sense of foreboding that Padmore brought to ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ was compelling. One marvelled at the emotional power of Schubert’s writing and at the controlled intensity with which the singer put it across. The famous ‘Ständchen’ was splendidly done. As in Die Sterne earlier in the evening, Lewis’s use of rubato showed the mark of an instinctively expert Schubertian while Padmore spun the vocal line delectably. ‘In der Ferne’ offered a complete contrast. Here both artists showed a masterly ability to control intensity in performance. Apart from anything else, this meant that the crucial key change for the third and final stanza was particularly effective. I loved Padmore’s account of ‘Abschied’, the last of the Rellstab settings. Here, his communication with the audience reached a new level; he included everyone in the sweep of the song.

After a moment for the singer to gather himself we were plunged into’ Der Atlas’, the first of the Heine settings. Though Schubert’s response to the Rellstab poems was the work of a master songwriter he surely achieved far greater heights in these Heine songs. ‘Der Atlas’ was riveting. Paul Lewis obtained a huge amount of sound from the Steinway but, as in the previous night’s recital, there was never a hint of forcing the tone. As for Padmore, his singing had amazing bite and histrionic power. Later, Lewis produced some magically atmospheric playing in ‘Die Stadt’, working hand in glove with his singer to distil a potent atmosphere while Padmore was daring in the amount of expression that he brought to the words and music. After a very fine account of ‘Am Meer’ something rather remarkable happened: in the few seconds pause I could detect a palpable sense of expectation among the audience as they readied themselves to hear ‘Der Doppelgänger’. The sense of expectancy was justified for Padmore gave us a performance that began with mesmerising quiet singing and rose to a pitch of searing intensity, all of which was underpinned by hypnotic playing from Paul Lewis. I was deeply impressed by their account of this song on CD. Hearing this extraordinary rendition live was a devastating experience. After this, ‘Taubenpost’ was a necessary release and I appreciated the bittersweet way in which these artists put it across. On the surface this song presents the quintessential lyrical Schubert but you don’t have to peer too far below the surface of the music to find deeper thoughts, the sense of ‘sehnsucht’ of which Mark Padmore had spoken at the start of the evening in introducing the programme.

I have only one reservation about this recital, namely the decision to present it in a very dimly lit church. The intention was to offer ‘Schubert by candlelight’. Unfortunately, there weren’t all that many candles around and, since the recital began later than usual – at 20.30 – this meant that most of us sat in the dark for Schwanengesang. That’s fine up to a point – a certain atmosphere was generated. However, it’s asking a lot of an English-speaking audience to sit through 23 songs in German without being able even to read the song titles and the succinct but useful summaries of the words that had been printed in the programme. On balance, better lighting would have been preferable.

About the music making, however, there can be no reservations. This was a memorable recital, including a performance of Schwanengesang that was exceptional by any standards. The rapport between these two fine artists was evident in everything that they did and you don’t get that through ‘mere’ rehearsal. Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis have been performing and recording Schubert lieder for at least four years now and it showed. The intuitive understanding between the two of them was an important factor in transforming this recital from an excellent one into a ‘Schubertiade’ that will linger long in the memory.

John Quinn