‘Wanderlust’ brings Mark Padmore and Julius Drake to Blackheath Halls

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Schumann: Mark Padmore (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Blackheath Halls, London, viewed on 1.7.2020. (CS)

Mark Padmore and Julius Drake at Blackheath Halls

Beethoven – ‘Mailied’ Op.52 No.4, ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’ Op.75 No.2, ‘Aus Goethe’s Faust’ Op.75 No.3, ‘Ein Selbstgespräch’ WoO114, ‘Resignation’ WoO149, ‘Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel’ WoO150, An die ferne Geliebte Op.98
Schumann Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner Op.35

It is probably a compulsion and passion to perform, communicate and connect with audiences through music, specifically lieder, that would have brought Mark Padmore and Julius Drake to Blackheath Halls to participate in the third SongEasel series, ‘Wanderlust’ – established and curated by pianist Jocelyn Freeman – rather than any particular ‘yearning to travel’.  All the same, it was clear from the musicians’ interval-interview with Freeman that this video recording, replacing what would have been a live concert, fulfilled a deep need: it was Padmore’s first performance since lockdown and Drake spoke of the three parts that make up musical performance: the composer’s score; the performer’s study, development and interpretation; the audience, without whom “a limb is lost”.

SongEasel was designed ‘to fill South East London with song’ and this specific series was planned to present ‘songs celebrating both the rewards of roaming in nature and the earnest world of inner, conflicting personal journeys’.  Padmore and Drake’s recital also contributed to the on-going, though sadly somewhat curtailed and muted, Beethoven 250 anniversary celebrations, and my first response on having watched and listened to the recital – before I indulged my desire to immediately rewind and repeat the pleasure – was that in this concert of two halves, first Beethoven, then Schumann, it was in Beethoven’s songs and the song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte that the duo truly found their expressive peak.

So, it was interesting therefore to hear Padmore comment that what he found so compelling was Beethoven’s “uncompromising” quality, only for Drake to add that Padmore’s response to the suggested programme surprised him: it was the first time he’d ever heard a singer say that they love performing Beethoven!  Drake suggested that singing Beethoven was like singing Bach, who similarly seems to have taken no account of what the voice ‘can do’ – “instrumentalists will say this too, Beethoven is limitless in what he asks of musicians”.   Padmore has always been a ‘serious’ musician, bringing knowledge and intellect, thought and reflection, to all he does and to the service of his innate musicianship.  He went on to speak of the way Beethoven is insistent with his musical material, that a song such as ‘Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel’ consistently sits up “at the top of the voice”; of the way that Beethoven “keeps going with a musical idea; it doesn’t matter how hard it is, if it breaks a string on a piano or fiddle, there is a raw power that is glorious.  Nothing stops Beethoven.”  Beethoven knew he was pushing boundaries, Drake continued: “Some things are impossible” but Beethoven is asking for music of such intensity, and is so genuine, “his longing for what he wants is so honest”, that performers are compelled to try to fulfil his wishes.

The Beethoven sequence began with three Goethe settings.  ‘Mailied’ immediately evoked a sense of freedom – how youthful Drake’s simple roving quavers – and Romantic wonder, “How gloriously nature revealed itself to me”.  Padmore’s light tenor was full of joy, the vocal phrasing relaxed, and the nuances telling – a lovely piano at the end of the second stanza, a strong forte to complement the piano’s crisp assertiveness at the close.  ‘Neue Liebe, neues Leben’, by contrast, was restless, conveying the impassioned turmoil of a heart overturned by new love, a heart which is occasionally overcome by reverie.  There was sometimes a fittingly ‘operatic’ quality, as if the emotions swelled beyond the intimacy of the lied form, and a similar sense of ‘theatre’, and here of fun too, infused the wry account of fleas, kings and scratching in ‘Aus Goethe’s Faust’: Drake’s staccato snatches and trills really ‘itched’ while Padmore found a regal resonance to convey a comic pomposity.  He maintained his customarily crispness of diction through the unseemly hastening of the final phrase, which triggered the piano’s final frantic, finger-stabbing flight.  The duo’s smile was apt: we all need some flippancy, even in the dark times.

Three less familiar songs followed.  Padmore introduced ‘Ein Selbstgespräch’ as perhaps the first “love song to Doris”, suggesting that this particular ‘Doris’ should reject the tutor who is pursuing her, noting that the song contains the word ‘ich’ 50 times – a narcissistic outpouring indeed, the self-absorption of which was captured by the spiky tenseness of Drake’s accompaniment and the agile athleticism of Padmore’s tenor, occasionally interrupted by some dreamy head-voice extemporisation.  Two late songs concluded the single-song sequence, both composed in the same year as Beethoven’s last piano sonata.  ‘Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel’ is strophic yet, as Padmore noted, the variety introduced in each verse, especially in the piano writing, illuminates the heavens and the belief that there is something beyond.  Padmore’s interpretation combined lullaby and hymn, sometimes swelling with compelling forcefulness – the sort of fluctuations and contrasts that leave the listener quite breathless, even overcome.  Having observed that Beethoven does “wonderful things with the rests in ‘Resignation’”, Padmore proceeded to make the fragments cohere with affecting perceptiveness and skill.  The duo spoke of the way that this song, which sings of the “end of life”, the “flame going out” and the “letting go”, illustrates how Beethoven was “able to go into the most profound musical statements that have ever been made”.  This was confirmed by the contrast between Padmore’s nuanced, angelic head-voice and Drake’s pounding, weighted fingers in a central section which summoned to mind Schubert’s ‘Atlas’: this lied strives for and achieves extremes of human experience and reflection.

An die ferne Geliebte, Drake suggested, was fitting fare for these troubled times, its idea of the “distant beloved”, and of being “far away from the people you are talking to and yearning to be with”, striking a sad chord in all our hearts.  Padmore noted how the cycle confirms that “song can reach from one heart into another heart”, referring to the poetic lines which insist that “you will sing what I have been singing”: coming from the heart without any artifice, the music reaches across all distances.

The broad tempo of ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz ich’ conveyed a contemplative maturity, the hastening at the end the only hint of a burning inner heat.  At the start of ‘Wo die Berge’ the duo revealed not only how much emotion Beethoven can ring from a simple scalic rise and fall, but how much expression rests within a monotone recitation!   The swift changes of mood between the songs, which follow on segue, were smoothly executed, as we moved from the staccato haste of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’ – what wonderfully liquid staccato triplets from Drake – evolving effortlessly into the lighter folksiness of ‘Diese Wolken in den Höhen’.  In ‘Es kehret der Maien’ the melodic striving suggested that repeated gestures might bring fulfilment; there was hope in the piano’s trills, rhythmic and ostinato patterns though at the close they submitted to the voice’s ruminative wondering, harmonic inflections casting thoughtful shadows.  ‘Nimm sie hin denn’ was, as far as I am concerned, just ‘perfect’: Padmore and Drake showed us that the expressiveness rests in the music itself but that supreme, unfussy musicianship is required to bring meaning and feeling to the fore.  The song is darkened by occasional gentle clouds.  But, if I could have it, as performed by Drake and Padmore here, bottled up and on tap forever, it’s tempting to believe that my soul would find peace, consoled not least by the infectious optimism of the accelerating rush of passion at the close.

Drake, who introduced Schumman’s Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner, suggested that one difference between Beethoven and Schumann is that Schumann’s music is more melodic in essence (I’ve also felt that Beethoven is really ‘just’ all scales and arpeggios, wonderful as they are, so I know what he means).  Beethoven, like Bach, he remarked, wrote some of the greatest melodies, but in some essential way the music is ‘Classical’ and “melody is not what it’s all about”.

This soulful melodising was something that Padmore and Drake made one feel to the core of one’s own heart in their performance of Schumann’s ‘cycle’ – Drake reminded us that these twelve songs are not the expression of a single protagonist’s voice, but a sequence of twelve poems by one poet which tells the stories of many hearts and souls – though Schumann’s rich harmonic subtleties and Romantic sehnsucht were by no means neglected.  And, while the Kerner Lieder form part of the body of 140 or more songs written during the nine months after Schumann learned that he could finally marry his beloved Clara Wieck, there is pain, frustration and exquisite poignancy too – all of which sometimes seem too much for one voice to bear.

There were some highpoints in this performance that I can’t imagine surpassed.  The expansive flow of ‘Stirb, Lieb’ und Freud!’ unfolded with the inevitability of a Bach chorale; it lies low in the voice, but Padmore’s phrasing was beautifully mellifluousness, hymn-like and still – he sometimes clasped his hands as if in prayer.  The phrase “Am haupte ganz von Himmelsglanz” carried us into still more dreamy and blanched terrain, but it was the vulnerable rise to the high G of “Zur nonne weiht mich arme Maid”  that was heart-breaking, as Drake’s pulsing syncopations and mid-voice pedals haunted the exposed vocal line.

In contrast, ‘Wanderlust’ whipped us up with the piano’s adventurous ambition and the vocal directness, and fluency and passion swept through ‘Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend’: who else but Schumann would leave the voice floating on the third of a major-key cadence, only to have the piano twist away to an ambiguous minor-key close and strand the voice even further from the shore?  The piano introduction to ‘Stille Liebe’ was the equivalent of watching a painter’s brush coax the first strokes across a canvas, and in this song Padmore and Drake achieved a lovely balance between the vocal stillness and the major/minor nuances and melodic unrest in the piano’s inter-phrases.  Padmore struggled a little to float the top Ab’s but this seemed entirely in keeping with the vulnerability of the musical utterance, and the Chopin-esque delicacy of Drake’s postlude was almost overwhelmingly wistful.

In ‘Frage’ the evenness of the vocal line seemed tailor-made for Padmore’s control and elegance, and this song segued into ‘Stille Thränen’, an expressive summit that swept one heavenwards.  Wonderful surges and falls were vitalised further by Drake’s pulsing heart throbs; as the forcefulness accrued so did the pathos – Padmore’s striking and courageous rise to the Bb climax was symbolic of two artists reaching for, and attaining, expressive heights.

And, at the close, ‘Alte Laute’ transported us to ‘other’ worlds, Padmore’s voice seeming to come from ‘elsewhere’, plaintive, sweet – finally a whisper, but laden with significance and weight.

We don’t need wonderful performers and performances to remind us why music is as important as the air we breathe.  But, performances such as this salve and reassure.

Claire Seymour

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