United Kingdom Schubert, Die Schöne Müllerin: Mark Padmore (tenor) and Paul Lewis (piano). Birmingham Town Hall, 30.4.2017. (GR)
Schubert – Die schöne Müllerin, Op.25, D.795
Franz Schubert was a master of both melody and song. The quality of his lieder output in individual and cycle form owes much to the poetry he cherry-picked – the verse of Goethe, Schiller, Heine and Rückert being notable examples. Wilhelm Müller too, proved a perfect fit for the Austrian composer and Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill). Shortly before his death in 1827, Müller wrote: ‘I can neither play nor sing, but when I write poetry, I am also singing and playing. If I could only make up the tunes myself, my songs would give greater pleasure than they now do. But no matter! A like-minded soul might appear who will hear the tunes in the words and give them back to me.’ It is ironic that by this time, a kindred spirit had already published a setting of Müllerin: Schubert’s D.795, which was to become an iconic opus in the history of lieder. Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis proved once more they are a textbook combination, kindred spirits, delivering an exquisite rendition of Schubert and Müller’s creation.
The cycle opens with Das Wandern (Journeying), our hero bidding farewell to his old home and enjoying all the expectations of a carefree wanderer – Padmore’s eagerness at ‘meine Lust’ reminding me of the ‘Val-deri, val-dera’ vein of the Obernkirchen Children’s Choir recording of 1954, while his echo effects of ‘Wandern’ suggest he is putting his best foot forward. But will hopes reach fruition? Inspiration is sought in the haphazardly tumbling of a brook down the hillslopes in Wohin? (Where to?). With the water seeming to glide at its own sweet will in tune with Schubert’s fluid phrases, the poet forges an empathy with its movement, pondering ‘Ist das denn meine Straße?’ (Is this the path to follow?); the babbling stream of notes from Lewis is not going to provide the answer yet. There is measured weight to Lewis’ mill-wheel in Halt! (Halt) as the momentum of the water is put to good use. Buoyed by the welcoming sweet song of the mill, ‘Süßer Mühlengesang!’ Padmore intimately engages with his audience to further industrial sounds from Lewis. With the first mention of the Müllerin in Danksagang an den Bach (Thanksgiving to the Brook), the poet’s destiny is further queried. From what he has seen he believes he has sufficient ‘Für die Hande, fürs Herze’ (For my hands, for my heart); as hope springs eternal Padmore lyricises mellifluously in both major and minor key. In Am Feierabend (When work is over) the piano is heard to earnestly replicate the hammer blows of the mill, while the vocal line beats accordingly, this would-be Romeo hoping to impress the heart of the Mädchen, but her ‘gute Nacht’ gives him little encouragement.
As the dialogue with the brook continues, Padmore captures the sheer beauty of Schubertian melody in Der Neugierige (The Inquisitive One), imparting wistfulness and ravishing cantilena; with Lewis making the piano sing, they move the narrative along together, posing the ultimate question, ‘Sag, Bächlein, liebt sie mich?’ (Tell me, little brook, does she love me?). Ungeduld (Impatience) is a test for any lieder performer, as the exasperation of this courtship reaches a peak. The afternoon’s dynamic duo judge the tempo just about right, Padmore’s diction as clear and distinct as the starling – ‘sprach die Worte rein und klar’ (say the word pure and plain) while the repetitious ‘Dein ist mein Herz und soll es ewig bleiben’ (My heart is yours and will be forever) resounding across the auditorium. As the schöne Müllerin and our hero come face to face in the cold light of morning, Morgengruss (Morning Greeting) her reaction still leaves him nonplussed, an uncertainty emphasised by the staccato of Lewis. Great control! The lilting verses of Der Müllers Blumen (The Miller’s Flowers) show our miller has not thrown in the towel, continuing to woo his intended by saying it with flowers. How could anyone resist Padmore’s smooth and silky tonality and charm as he pleads ‘Vergiß, vergiß mein nicht!’ (Don’t forget, don’t forget me!)? Thränenregen (Rain of tears) resumes in a similar vein as the lover’s gaze is for her eyes only; all nature is on his side – the moon and stars, the ever-present flowing brook, the shelter of the alders and the flowers on the bank. Padmore is entranced until in final stanza as the first few drops of rain from the fingers of Lewis put a damper on the proceedings and bring him back to earth.
In due course our seducer broadcasts his triumph in Mein (Mine), the brook, the wheels of the mill, and the woodland birds are all called upon to celebrate the moment with him – ‘Die geliebte Müllerin ist mein! Mein!’ (My beloved maid of the mill is mine! Mine!). Singer and accompanist convey the joy of this coup with relish as pulses start to race and dynamics rise. But success is short-lived and the melancholy of Pause (Pause) follows, yet the beauty of Schubert’s music and the artistry of the two supreme ‘ieder exponents on the platform, create that hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment. Initiated by Lewis’ spellbinding prelude, plus Padmore’s development of the lute-motive, the pair cast a spell over the well-filled Birmingham Town Hall. Green is the favourite colour of this Lothario (because as he says, their love is evergreen) and the nimbleness of Mit dem Grünen Lautenbande (To accompany the Lute’s green ribbon) is no anti-climax to the previous number; sweetness and light abound, accentuated by the enchanting clipped phrases of Lewis. That the bubble has burst upon this idyllic setting is confirmed by the proximity of Der Jäger (The hunter); Padmore is vocally and visibly disturbed at this ominous addition to the scenario, while Lewis expresses his agitation too, but as ever their timing remains in synch. Further conversations with the brook, acting as an intermediary, between the poet and his desired, follow in Eifersucht und Stolz (Jealousy and Pride); Padmore and Lewis wind up the suspense and as alarm bells start to sound they have the audience on the edge of their seats.
Die liebe Farbe (The beloved colour) is a moving threnody on the death of the poet’s happiness. Padmore uses his operatic experience to maximum effect here, exemplified by Müller’s poignant line ‘Das Wild, das ich jage, das ist der Tod’ (The quarry I’m hunting is called death); the tenor’s head is in the clouds voicing some heavenly notes. Muller uses the colour green so cleverly in this and the next number Die böse Farbe (The Hateful Colour) where green is now no longer for go. Schubert obliges with a change in the music’s spectrum, this abrupt shift in mood is brilliantly interpreted by the pair on stage, the ‘Goodbyes’ of Padmore showing his heart was perhaps not yet broken, merely fragmenting. But resignation and pathos now engulf our hero in Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers), the finality of it being hinted in Padmore’s lines, with underpinning by the tender echoing cadences of Lewis. Where do we go now? Soul shattered, can any respite be found in the brook, Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook)? Despite tempting offers of roses, angels and stars (reminding me of Bette Davis in Now Voyager) but with no experience of love itself, the only recourse for the brook is to ‘So singe nur zu’ (Just sing to me). For the final Des Bache Wiegenlied (The Brook’s Lullaby) Padmore takes a few paces to his right to distance the lullaby from the wanderer’s tale, a neat point. The journeyman is now at rest; the words encourage the heartbroken to ‘Schlaf aus deine Freude, schlaf aus dein Leid!’ (Sleep away your joy, sleep away your pain). Will a new star shine in heaven?