Schubert’s Cycles Given Distinctive and Distinguished Readings

United StatesUnited States Schubert, Beethoven: Song Cycles, Mark Padmore (tenor), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano), Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, 14.10.2015, 15.10.2015, 17.10.2015 (SSM)

Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin
Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte


Few concerts leave a listener in such a trance that upon exiting the theatre one feels like the doppelganger of Schubert’s song: one of you is outside, the other is still inside. This feeling of Innigkeit was felt after each of these three concerts but was strongest with the richest set of songs, Winterreise. To converse about anything other than what was experienced seemed pointless. At some time during the first hour after Winterreise ended, my friend wondered if we had recovered enough to change the topic. The effect, though, lingered for days.

Although independent song cycles themselves, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise share many similarities. The texts for both were written by the same author, Wilhelm Müller (no relation to the schőne Müllerin!); both focus on unrequited love and its power to destroy; both are somewhat ambiguous as to whether their anti-heros have indeed taken their lives. Die schöne Müllerin is considerably less severe than Winterreise: there is a brightness to the former that is absent in the latter. DSM is a poem of day, W is one of night.

It’s always unfortunate when, after much anticipation, a scheduled performer is unable to appear. It is even more unfortunate that in the case of Paul Lewis, originally announced to accompany Mark Padmore, the reason was a freak accident: Mr. Lewis was attacked by seagulls and knocked to the ground, injuring his hand badly enough to require surgery. One expected the concert to be canceled, but there was enough time to bring in another accompanist, one with whom Mr. Padmore has played and recorded. Kristian Bezuidenhout, a specialist in early music practice, replaced Lewis and went beyond that by changing from a piano to his preferred instrument, the fortepiano. The result was a significant and pleasing difference in coloring and tonal balance. The instrument itself is  beautiful, a copy by Maine’s R. J. Regier of a Graf fortepiano built in Vienna in the 1820s. Some of the moments when the pianist plays loudly enough to overpower the voice will never be a problem with the quieter fortepiano: its sound is on a more human scale than present-day grand pianos. In Schubert’s time, the fortepiano, which had been around since the 1720s, was still common; but not long after Schubert’s death, it lost favor to the newer pianos as we know them.  

There have been an amazing number of recitals and an equally impressive number of recordings of the songs performed here. Without simplifying the complexity of each vocalist who attempts them, they seem to fall into two categories: in the style of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and not in the style of Fischer-Dieskau. Listening to him is a trip back in time: the clarity of line is there, but listeners today have ultimately judged him lacking in warmth, empathy and understanding. Those who choose not to follow his vocal journey tend to be more in tune with the characters described in the cycles: two young, overly sensitive men, quiet externally but in turmoil inside. Nowhere in Fischer-Dieskau’s renditions does one ever believe that his is the voice of either youth. The current group of vocalists who, for lack of a better term, are historically informed, singers who sing instead of disclaim, emote  rather than scream, include Padmore, Ian Bostridge, Florian Boesch and Christoph Pregardien.

Empathy and ultimately sympathy were the basic feelings that flowed from Padmore’s recitals. Even in the more dramatic moments, one felt the fragility of these characters. They were no crazier than the scores of men who killed themselves after over-identifying with the young Werther.

The accord between the musicians was palpable: both played as if they had been doing this for years. There were several instances where the music that emanated from the keyboard was unworldly and perhaps closer to the sounds that Schubert heard in his mind. The most potent examples of this are songs from Schwanengesang: “Der Atlas,” “Die Stadt” and ”Der Doppleganger.”   

Padmore’s voice never wavered at either end of his vocal range. His voice has an identifiable sweetness that belies his ability to show pain or strong emotions. It came as a shock that he could put as much power as he did into some of the songs and do so without losing his distinct voice. My head still echoes with the roiling words “Dein is mein Herz” from Die schöne Müllerin‘s “Ungeduld.” One cannot but be impressed at Padmore’s ease and confidence. Not once did he stop for a sip of water, his voice never faltering even at the end of these monumental cycles.

Stan Metzger

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