Mark Padmore Leads Off Season’s Vocal Offerings for Philadelphia Chamber Music Society

United StatesUnited States Schumann, Tippett, and Fauré: Mark Padmore (tenor), Jonathan Biss (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 16.10.2014 (BJ)

Schumann: Liederkreis, Op. 24; Sechs Gedichte von Nikolaus und Requiem, Op. 90
Tippett: Boyhood’s End
Fauré: La Bonne Chanson, Op. 61

As might already be inferred from a glance at this well-designed program, Mark Padmore is an artist of substance. He clearly thinks deeply about the music he performs, he has a voice that, while essentially lyric in character, possesses plenty of heft (“spinto” might perhaps describe it accurately), and he can turn an eloquent phrase.

My previous experience of his singing has come only through recordings, exclusively of music by Handel and Haydn that he has interpreted with considerable delicacy, and it was something of a surprise to find him, in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, singing in a predominantly forthright manner—no, let me say it honestly: rather too loudly for a 650-seat hall like the Perelman Theater. Heft is all very well, if it is used where the music demands it, but especially in the opening work on this program, it seemed to me to be a kind of default setting for Padmore.

Volume is not the only issue that I am trying to get at: there is also the question of what kind of attack a singer applies to a line or a word. In this Liederkreis, particularly, many of the songs’ lines began in positively stentorian fashion, and most of those lines then petered out either into near-inaudibility, or into a softer dynamic projected by the use of “white,” non-vibrato tone. Such tone is a major weapon in Padmore’s artistic armory, and it can have a powerful expressive effect, but again, my feeling was that it was being used too frequently, and often without corresponding to a particular demand in the poetic text or the music.

To put those two points together, far too often one or two of the relatively unimportant words in a line would be projected explosively, without due regard to the overall arch of the text, while the word that should carry the line’s principal expressive message was left, as it were, in the dynamic twilight. Furthermore, part of the challenge in performing a song cycle is to give each song its individual character without endangering the unity of the whole. Several times in the evening, after one or another particularly forceful song, I was looking forward to a shift in emotional tone and dynamic for the next, more inward, song—but here too individual nuance was trumped by uniformity, the next song simply carrying on the dynamic emphasis of the one before.

This, I fear, sounds like a very large catalog of complaints. Things definitely improved as the evening progressed, by way of mostly enjoyable performances of Schumann’s less familiar Opus 90 and Fauré’s magical Verlaine cycle, and it ended with a well-chosen encore, Schubert’s Ständchen, which was performed with the utmost subtlety and grace on the parts of both Padmore and his pianist.

Regarding the latter, I am happy to say that Jonathan Biss’s playing throughout the evening quite erased my previous unfavorable impressions of this widely admired young musician. There is perhaps nothing that gives me more pleasure, in my work as a critic, than being able to change my mind about someone I haven’t hitherto admired. The Biss I heard in this recital in no way resembled the one I have heard in a couple of concerto performances in the past. He had the full measure of both Schumann’s textural and tonal subtlety and Fauré’s poetic understatement, and in Michael Tippett’s enchanting Boyhod’s End, with its blend of introspection and exuberant dance, he matched every nuance captured by Padmore in a performance that showed both singer and pianist at their highly impressive and persuasive best.

Bernard Jacobson

P.S. If Jeremy Denk and Jonathan Biss joined forces to play four-hand piano together, would they be the Think Twice Duo?

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