It’s unusual for the first and last songs of a recital to show the singer at his best, but so it was at this thoughtfully planned, lovingly sung and superbly played recital. Offering a kind of potted history of the Lied from Haydn to Schumann via Mozart and Beethoven, the evening had a pleasing symmetry. Haydn’s She never told her love, a dramatic setting of Viola’s reply to Orsino in Twelfth Night, hinting at the consequences for herself of keeping her own passion a secret, is an unusual beginning to a recital. It was a perfect example of Mark Padmore’s style of singing, which is always refined and text-sensitive but occasionally a little astringent.
The final song of the programme, Schumann’s Alte Laute, was sung with reverent tone and finely shaped phrasing, and played with great sensitivity by Simon Lepper. The Padmore / Lepper partnership is one of close collaboration and intimate understanding, and this was vividly shown in Mozart’s Das Veilchen, the composer’s only Goethe setting. Padmore neatly captured the anguish of the rejected lover (aka the violet) as well as the gentle irony of the final lines, and Lepper gave both the quasi-operatic passages and the tender ones just the right emphasis.
Schubert said that “There is no such thing as happy music,” but Beethoven’s setting of Goethe’s Mailied would surely contradict that view, with its ecstatic conflation of love and nature. Lepper played the challenging piano part with insouciant ease, and Padmore conveyed the sense of exhilaration with enthusiasm, though one might wish for the song to be taken a shade faster. In contrast, Adelaide was sung and played at a relatively brisk pace.
Schumann’s Kerner Lieder is a demanding set of songs, perhaps best suited to baritones although Padmore makes a fairly convincing case for it to be sung by a tenor. Erstes Grün is a fascinating song, the perfect embodiment of Romantic melancholy – the poet longs for Spring, which alone can calm him, whilst the enigmatic major-mode piano counterpoints his fervour; it was very finely sung and played. In complete contrast, Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes had an air of reverence and mystery, and Stille Liebe was remarkable for its delicate, Schubertian sense of hesitation from the piano.
There were times when the higher notes were on the raw side, but the sincerity and musicality of the performance remained absolute, nowhere more so than in the single encore, Brahms’ Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht which was sung and played with subtlety.