A Winterreise that Ilustrated Schubert’s Affinity with Narrative

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Winterreise, D. 911: performed by Mark Padmore (tenor) and Paul Lewis (piano). Birmingham Town Hall, 23.11.2014 (GR)

Franz Schubert was a master of song, many such compositions containing unforgettable melodies. Winterreise (Winter Journey) based upon the poetry of Wilhelm Müller, is regarded by many as a pinnacle within the genre of Lieder. One might expect it to contain much beautiful vocal and piano music (and it does) but in D911 Schubert also showed an affinity with narrative, assembling and arranging the twenty-four verses into a coherent order. We are asked to eavesdrop on the thoughts and feelings of a rejected lover as he forges a melancholic traipse through ice and snow – from leaving his sweetheart’s house to an archetypal denouement. Lasting some seventy minutes, the encounters of our hero are indeed worthy of a classic tragedy, be it Greek or Shakespearian. They were related on this occasion at the Birmingham Town Hall on 23rd Nov 2014 by two of England’s finest: Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis. As the anguish unfolds could the pair convey the variety of mood swings the work encompasses?

Having recorded the cycle some five years ago and presented it live on many occasions since, Padmore and Lewis are totally familiar with its dramatic sequence and from first to last they walked hand in hand. This togetherness gave their performance a partnership that was both professional and polished. However I got the impression that because it was so familiar to them, it may have lacked that bit of ‘edge’, that element of danger a little improvisation might provide. Nevertheless Lewis brilliantly set the tone with each of his introductions and Padmore demonstrated an impressive range of dynamics and colour (although perhaps not as much of the latter as when the piece is sung by a baritone).

Emerging into the bitter outdoors for the initial number our hero bids his Liebchen Gute Nacht (Good Night). Lewis immediately captured a typically Schubertian lyricism, an effect enhanced by his smooth delivery of the fp score markings. Padmore looked shell-shocked and was suitably measured in his opening delivery; not wanting to disturb his paramour’s dreams, he crept aimlessly off into the night, as if it were he who was the guilty party. A broken man, Padmore’s heartfelt Sacht, sacht die Türe zu! (Softly, softly the door closes!) was attractively forlorn and began the trauma admirably. With its wealth of metaphorical language, it is not difficult to see why Schubert was so attracted to the verse of Müller; the second song, Die Wetterfahne (The Weathervane), illustrated this point. Emphasised by a sardonic air to Lewis’ energetic introduction symbolising the fickleness of women. As gusts of wind twisted the cock to and fro in chaotic fashion, Padmore fastened on to this image, echoing the way his attentions had been dismissively cast aside. There were some idyllic teardrops from Lewis’ fingers in Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen Tears) while I sensed a pulsating resistance to the protagonist’s fate from Padmore, a passion still glühend heiß (burning hot). But the overriding sensation was one of Erstarrung (Numbness) as Padmore wrung his hands together to the scurrying tempestuous triplets of Lewis. As Padmore lifted his gaze upwards, fixing upon the bare branches of Der Lindenbaum (The Linden Tree) he evoked pleasurable memories of past rendezvous. This familiar fifth element from Winterreise conjured up some mellifluous sweet dreams, but with the trunk devoid of its vascular organs, it was his own life’s blood that was in danger of becoming spilt. Losing his hat in the wind brought Padmore back to earth. That there was no going back was spelt out by Lewis’ ethereal motif in Wasserflut (Flood Water); Padmore, knowing that the stream’s current that has collected his tears are destined to pass the house he has just left, portrayed a pained sensation.

The staccato introduction to Auf dem Flusse (On the River) to represent the now frozen crusted waterway has always puzzled me somewhat, but amid the numerous key changes Lewis’ touch was arresting, ice upon which Padmore could carve her name with pride. Yet only too aware that his scratches are as ephemeral as his love, our protagonist surrounded his message with a broken ring: Padmore generated a palpable tension throughout the auditorium. The performing pair took Rückblick (A Look Backward) fairly briskly, in keeping with its rushing semi-quavers, as if pleasant images needed to be hastily eclipsed. Further irregular tempos revealed a bitterness in Padmore’s vocal line: if only the clock could be put back. Then in the pensive mood of Irrlicht (Will o’ the Wisp) Padmore began to hallucinate and fluffily dream the impossible dream, but realising that love is a lottery and bewitching spells can lead the unsuspecting astray, realism took hold of him. As fatigue overwhelmed progress Rast (Rest) was no solution for the wanderer, he must relentlessly press on. Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring) exquisitely lived up to its sub-title as the twists and turns of D911 were artistically put across by the two recitalists. Müller’s Doch an den Fensterscheiben, Wer malte die Blätter da? (But on the window panes, Who painted the leaves there?) was caressed by some warm legato from Lewis, while Padmore’s plea Wann grünt ihr Blätter am Fenster? Wann halt’ ich mein Liebchen im Arm? (When will you leaves on the window turn green? When will I hold my love in my arms?) was a lump-in-the-throat moment. In contrast the blues were everywhere in Einsamkeit (Solitude) completing the halfway point of Schubert’s winter journey.

The galloping of Die Post (The Post) raised our traveller’s hopes but the postman never called. Padmore’s repetitions of Mein Herz had good variation ranging from mild alarm to outright panic. Even thoughts of advancing years in Der greise Kopf (The Old Man’s Head) failed to offer a glimmer of comfort to Padmore’s line, a sentiment reinforced by Lewis’ sobering and partially dissonant strains. The sullen mood got dourer: the tone of Padmore’s Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre! (How long still to the grave) struck the right chord. His only companion on his lonesome trek was Die Krähe (The Crow) acknowledged by Padmore’s upward pointing finger, but hovering with vulturine intent decreed it was a hollow serenade from the tenor: Krähe, laß mich endlich seh’n/ Treue bis zum Grabe! (Crow, let me at last behold fidelity to the grave!). The persistent rhythmic accompaniment of Lewis rendered a haunting atmosphere and a growing tension. As Padmore focused on the last foliage of autumn, the pitter-patter notes of Lewis painted a graphic picture in Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope); as a single leaf clung onto life, but hope did not spring eternal as inevitably it will fall and die, as will the ardour of this voyager. Moving on Im Dorfe (In the Village) the general mood continued its downward spiral, hopes like dreams fading into oblivion. Padmore’s resignation was confirmed with Was will ich unter den Schläfern säumen? (Why should I linger among the sleepers?); sleep will never again be a welcome haven of unconsciousness.

After the traumas of the night Der stürmische Morgen (The Stormy Morning) came as something of a relief to Padmore. This feeling was perpetuated by spying Ein Licht freundlich (a friendly light) in Täuschung (Delusion) but it was a brief interlude for Padmore – a mirage. A nadir was reached in Der Wegweiser (The Sign Post) as Müller gave his subject one more decision to make, will he opt for the path from which there is no return? Lewis conveyed the utter despondency of the moment, prompting Padmore to ostensibly shrink into a shell: a rapt audience held its breath. Reaching a graveyard, his mind fuddled with cold, our story-teller was further deceived by Das Wirtshaus (The Inn) but as with Mary and her child there was no room. What does the future hold? Padmore convinced us that this traveller can still put his best foot forward, presenting an impassioned defiance in Mut! (Courage!) determined to face the intensifying elements, both tangible and metaphysical. Facing the riddle of the three suns in Die Nebensonnen (The False Suns) Padmore pleaded with the third and final one to set, so the darkness of death might embrace him. A beautifully sad number, very dark, but does our hero really want to die? It was an open question. As Padmore and Lewis alternated in Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) they left us an epilogue involving a confrontation with a strange old man with whom a kindred spirit may be found: … soll ich mit dir geh’n?/Willst zu meinen Liedern/ deine Leier dreh’n?’ (… shall I go with you?  When I sing my songs, will you play your hurdy-gurdy too?). But where will they play together, on earth or in the heavens? Whatever the location Padmore and Lewis told a great story!

Geoff Read

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