Whether Schubert’s Winterreise seems an appropriate piece for Valentine’s Day may depend on the individual listener’s situation, but one thing is certain. If you started the day disappointed by the absence of cards on your doormat, a trip to hear Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis in the evening would have left you sharing none of its protagonist’s despair.
In one respect, Winterreise is harder to perform than Schubert’s first great cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, because it lacks the clear narrative arc to guide (although not entirely dictate) the singer’s emotions. In telling of the distressed wanderings of a man whose lover has forsaken him through twenty-four songs, Winterreise makes the performer think harder about how to keep the story interesting, believable and, above all, human.
Every song makes a new point, and in Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, who also recorded the cycle in 2009 for Harmonia Mundi, we see an exceptionally varied and well thought through approach to them all. On the night, Padmore presented a coherent figure from start to finish, and yet meditated on the central themes of distress, pain, anguish and despair in an infinite number of ways. He did this by picking up on the tiniest nuance in each song, and by expressing each with breathtaking attention to detail and a wide range of subtle effects.
In the opening ‘Gute Nacht’, Padmore produced a light, ethereal sound that was anything but melodramatic. Indeed, it was the subtlety of the voice that brought the pain home, with the audience left wondering how anything so beautiful could have been so wronged. Padmore’s acting was superb as he clutched his wrist with his other hand, pressed his palms together or gently fingered the air, and his pronunciation was beautifully sensitive in such phrases as ‘Nun ist die Welt so trübe’ (‘now the world’s so bleak’). There was, of course, dynamic variation within this first song, but the final verse was performed with a spine-tingling quietness that only made the contrast with the second song even starker. This was ‘Die Wettefahne’, in which his distress became far more obvious and immediate.
‘Der Lindenbaum’, in which the narrator contemplates the linden tree, was another song in which Padmore proved his exceptional ability to respond to the words. It started out almost as an anthem of serenity to his happy memories of the tree, before the mood became more foreboding as he recalled passing it now at the dead of night. There was, however, no single transition from one theme to the other, and the song continued to change in temper as the tree now called him to find rest under it.
‘Frühlingstraum’ was another intriguing song as it started with rippling gaiety, but repeatedly became more sinister as Padmore recalled the cocks’ crowing that awakened him from the joys of spring. The most impressive aspect, however, was how smoothly and effectively Padmore and Lewis managed the transition back to the former mood with that single moment of silence at the end of the verse. The final line of this song and the following ‘Einsamkeit’ revealed how Padmore’s voice can soar with intense beauty in the upper register. When Padmore ascended to his highest lines it felt as if his voice was entering a new dimension, and yet the transition to, and from, this mode always created a smooth, coherent whole.
Throughout the evening Padmore’s attention to the words’ meaning shone through. In ‘Die Post’ he adopted a slightly more earthy tone because a stage coach is a physical entity that, in theory at least, could carry a letter from his lover. In the following ‘Der greise Kopf’ his tone was dreamier as befitted this more ‘metaphysical’ meditation on youth, ageing and mortality. Padmore always knew when to emphasise words and phrases, and in this song one line was delivered almost in the style of an operatic recitative.
Of course, Padmore was only one half of the act, and Winterreise places particular demands on the pianist because his rhythms are as important as the singer’s own expressions in capturing each song’s mood. It therefore properly needs someone of the calibre of Paul Lewis, who didn’t disappoint whether he was bringing out the rushing effects of ‘Erstarrung’, the strident ‘plodding’ of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ or the rolling tumultuousness of ‘Rückblick’.
The final song sees the protagonist encounter, and consider going with, a hurdy-gurdy man. Here, Padmore’s output was so mesmerising that it captured his own sense of intrigue with the organ grinder. When the music finished, Padmore appeared to drift slightly across the stage which, although only a consequence of his body relaxing, perfectly suggested that he was leaving with the hurdy-gurdy man .
Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org