United Kingdom Schubert: Schwanengesang: Mark Padmore (tenor) and Paul Lewis (piano). Town Hall, Birmingham, 4.4.2016. (GR)
Schubert: Schwanengesang D957
Beethoven: Mailied, Op 52 No 4; Neue Liebe, neues Leben, Op 75 No 2; Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, WoO 150; An die ferne Geliebte Op 98
‘Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis perform Schubert’s Schwanengesang‘ was the billing for this Sunday afternoon recital in Birmingham’s Town Hall. But with D957 lasting some fifty minutes, what do you add to this collection of late Schubert lieder that publisher Haslinger had labelled ‘Swan Song’ to make it a worthwhile concert? Padmore chose four Beethoven pieces for which there is some justification since Ludwig Rellstab – librettist of the first seven in the Schwanengesang collection – had initially offered his poems to Beethoven, but due to failing health he had passed them on to Schubert. In an earlier concert this year under the Schwanengesang moniker, Roderick Williams had given the matter some thought and come up with an inspired mix entitled ‘A Taste of Rellstab and Heine Expanded’ (Review). I wondered whether a complete contrast might equally well fill the void, some French or English song for instance, moderating the dominance of the Germanic tongue.
The opening three Beethoven songs provided an ideal warm-up for Padmore and Lewis: the hints of May outside the concert venue, were bouncingly echoed by the clip-clopping phrases of Lewis in Mailied (May Song) particularly dominant between stanzas three and four. More Goethe followed with Neue Liebe, neues Leben (New love, new life), Padmore wrestling with his obsessive love that built to a crunching closing climax of Liebe! Liebe! Lass mich los (Love! Love! Let me free!). The gorgeous Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel (Evening song beneath a starry sky) had the audience breathlessly hanging on to every note and pregnant pause of the recitalists. The Beethoven contribution finished with the six parts that constitute An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved) said to be the first coherent song cycle for vocal and piano accompaniment. So effective was the dream duo of Padmore and Lewis in the first section that their reverie of hill and vale cast an ethereal spell, and as the pain of the protagonist’s memories continued, the blue mountains of librettist Aloys Jeitteles’ exquisite lines were graphically portrayed by Padmore, in complete control of the changing tempos. Through-composed, the transitions between the wafting clouds and rippling brook were imperceptibly negotiated by Lewis during the third and fourth sections of Beethoven’s Op 98. But as spring returns in the fifth, Padmore’s Nur ich kann nicht ziehen von hinnen (I alone cannot move on) was a devastating reality-check, a trauma that was stoically portrayed to the end.
Having witnessed the Padmore/Lewis rendition of Winterreise at Birmingham Town Hall in Nov 2014 (Review) more of their interpretation of Schubert had been eagerly awaited; the pair fulfilled all expectations – and more. They are certainly two of England’s finest whether as individualists or as a twosome – Padmore capable of exceptional range of colour and dynamics, the musicality of Lewis an ideal complement. Schwanengesang was presented in full and to the conventional order. The first of the seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab, Liebesbotschaft (Love’s message) opened proceedings after the interval: Lewis’ ‘murmuring brook’ was a bright and silvery messenger, while Padmore adopted a contemplative air, estranged from his ‘love’ symbolised on the keyboard by the multiplicity of keys. As the mood darkens there was a military touch to Lewis’ chords that introduced Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s foreboding) Padmore’s change of tempo bringing a sense of drama to the number – in the auditorium you could have heard a pin drop. The urgency in Padmore’s delivery increased to desperation point in Fruhlings-Sehnsucht (Spring-longing) accentuated by Lewis’ rippling triplets. The third Rellstab verse culminated in the tenor’s utter seclusion – answering his own question of who might quell his longing with repetitions of Nur Du! (Only You!). The next piece was the ever popular and melodic Ständchen (Serenade); the staccato quavers of Lewis combined perfectly with the vulnerability in Padmore’s tone, caressing the notes that symbolise a nightingale with both sincerity and admirable tenderness. The duo displayed the tense atmosphere of Aufenthalt (Resting Place) reminiscent of the pre-interval ‘distant beloved’ images of Beethoven, emphasising their joint communicative talents. There was no shortage of lover’s despair during In der Ferne (Far away) highlighted by the impassioned successions of Wegen nach!; coming from one who without blessing had forsaken all and been sent on his way, the fff closure of Padmore was shattering. Abschied (Farewell) fitting concluded the Rellstab group, pulsating along to the unrelenting rhythms of Lewis; the flawless hypnotic patter of Padmore together with his soulful Ade reiterations that begin each of six cantos, made this a memorable passage.
Over to Heinrich Heine of which Der Atlas (Atlas) was the first of six. Lewis immediately established crisis-mood, resonating with some heart-rending passion from Padmore, powerfully paralleling his wretched state with the burdens on the shoulders of Atlas. Padmore resumed the pouring out of his heart in the brief but extremely moving Ihr Bild (Her likeness). Another classic Schubert song followed, Das Fischermädchen (The fishermaiden); as if propelling their craft with muffled oars, the pair glided effortlessly across the water. As the inspirations based Heine’s poetry continued, the breezes that persistently scuttle through Die Stadt (The town) were disturbing in the hands of Lewis, whilst Padmore’s temper from apprehensive to defiance was attention-grabbing. This ability to switch moods whilst remaining faithful to the poet’s lines and Schubert’s music was underlined in Am Meer (By the sea) – the closing Tränen (tears) mesmerising. Der Doppelgänger (The wraith) plunged us into even murkier depths, death was everywhere. As Lewis created an eeriness with his solid and deliberate chords, Padmore addressed the apparition Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid (Why do you ape the pain of love) conveying a bitter resentment. But far from going home on a depressing note, the enthusiastic audience still had Die Taubenpost (Pigeon Post) to come, the sole poem in Schwanengesang by Johann Gabriel Seidl; jovial conviviality returned. Padmore and Lewis capped a five star interpretation of the mood swings within Schubert’s swan song, immersing themselves into their art with sincerity and modesty.