Mark Padmore Pays Tribute To Benjamin Britten

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The English tenor, Mark Padmore, due to partake in the Wigmore Hall’s special December event “Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam”, talks to Mansel Stimpson…

When speaking about Benjamin Britten Mark Padmore is not stinting in his praise: “a genius”, he says, “and one of the greatest song composers”. Such words come as no surprise since those who turn to Mark’s own web-site will find there by way of introductory comment the following: “One of the great things I enjoy about singing is exploring texts”. This is followed by the assertion that he prefers to go for music in which the text requires thinking about and in which you are communicating words that are worth hearing. All of this is, of course, absolutely parallel with Britten’s own approach to his vocal compositions. Indeed Mark’s stress on the importance of interpretation is not far removed from Britten’s own expressed distrust of what he termed ‘the voice beautiful’. On that score, however, Mark has his own viewpoint: “One mustn’t neglect good singing just because you’re being faithful to the text. For me it’s a constant journey trying to improve that aspect and to create for the listener a thrilling aural experience on both levels. The ne plus ultra here is the Fritz Wunderlich type of voice because when you hear him in lieder the quality of the voice is magical and that leads the audience into the song.”

Mark is proud to have been asked to participate along with his fellow tenors Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley and Ian Bostridge in the Wigmore Hall’s festival of Britten running from the 2nd to the 4th of December. It commemorates the thirtieth anniversary of Britten’s death and, in addition to singing Who are these Children? on the 3rd, Mark has his own lunchtime recital on the day itself, the 4th. On the Sunday the accompanist will be Graham Johnson and on Monday Roger Vignoles. “I love the stimulus of working with different pianists. It means that you rehearse in a different way, all sorts of things change. Just talking with Graham is an absolute education and with Roger I’ve developed a close professional relationship so we have each come to know how the other works. I find that these accompanists who specialise are not just possessed of a great understanding of the repertoire but have a very fine ear for the poetry.”

It’s this ear for poetry in a musical context that impresses Mark about Britten’s song-cycles generally. “He had an acute appreciation of poetry and I believe that right through his life he and Peter Pears would read poetry and mark poems that might be suitable for setting. Take the Hardy cycle, Winter Words: the pieces he chose are often ones that are not frequently anthologised. He read deeply and always knew what he was looking for. In the Serenade it’s the combination that comes from putting together such varied poets that creates so much of the power of the piece and generates its wonderful atmosphere. Musically too there’s something very, very strong there. I’ve recently performed it in various places abroad – that includes Poland and Northern Spain – and you get the sense that people are hooked by it even if they don’t fully understand the words. Britten is very, very skilful and that, combined with the powerful ideas he expresses, is a great aid to communication.”

Our talk then moves from Britten to Pears and other singers. “Above all in Pears’s singing you hear an intelligent approach to the words and a deep understanding of what he’s trying to put across. I love that, because just singing with a beautiful tone doesn’t get to the heart of the matter at all. The opportunities are definitely there in Britten for mulling over exactly what his meaning is and deciding why he chose particular poems. As for my own approach, I know that some people are very sniffy about listening to recordings of what they’re doing, but I’m not. I like to listen to as many as possible and then you begin to see the advantages and disadvantages of each. However, to listen to just one might be a mistake because you could get caught up with one interpretation that’s not your own. I know, for example, that in the case of Die schöne Müllerin I’ve got over twenty recordings by various singers. It can also be possible to follow one singer over a period, as with Pears and the Serenade, which he recorded several times. Indeed, it was his recording with Dennis Brain that introduced me, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra excepted, to Britten’s music, but shortly afterwards I heard Bob Tear and I have the sounds of his voice very much in my head because he did it fantastically well. I do now go back to Pears a great deal, but I like to listen also to those nearer Bob’s generation including Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Philip Langridge.”

Over the two days in December Mark will be singing four cycles, so we discuss each in turn. I am particularly pleased that one of them is the too little heard and therefore underrated Who are these Children? to texts by the Scot William Soutar. Mark has already championed this work by recording it (Hyperion CDA67459, which includes Finzi and Tippett) and he makes this observation: “It’s the all-inclusiveness of the cycle that’s amazing, from the Scottish riddles to the serious songs in standard English – plus, of course, the message which is a very, very powerful pacifist one.”

When it comes to his Monday recital, the programme begins with a work that was premiered at the Wigmore Hall in September 1942, the Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo. I suggest that the main requirement in this highly Italianate work may be less nuances of interpretation than a sense of being impassioned: can a singer hope to be on fire at the very start of a recital? “The thing to remember about these songs is that they are declarations of love from Britten to Pears and to perform them as they did when they came back from America was a pretty daring thing to do. There’s a lot of underlying stuff here. The translation of the Sonnets that Britten worked from was an edition by John Addington Symonds who as a writer on homosexuality made public Michelangelo’s love for Cavalieri. So for people in the know the cycle was a big declaration of homosexual love at a time when it was, of course, illegal – and they do feel like love songs. They were early works but they showed clearly Britten’s amazing compositional skill when it came to knowing what makes a good song cycle.”

Also on Mark’s recording is another comparative rarity that he will be singing. “I love the Hölderlin Fragments and I’m surprised they are not done more, especially in Germany. Hölderlin was a great poet and it’s not just a case of beautiful language but of interesting ideas: in what he expresses there’s argument as well as description. Britten’s choice of poetry was always very personal and here again one finds poems with homosexual elements. The way in which Britten kept plugging away at this theme in his texts presented an argument for his life and for his love of Pears. It’s an enormously attractive work and, as so often, Britten rounds it off magnificently. With ‘The Lines of Life’ you get the sense that he recognised that he had grasped a really strong idea, one that needed to be saved to become the last song.”

Completing Mark’s programme is the aforementioned Winter Words. “These are snapshots of different examples of Hardy, a series of fairly individual songs starting with a blustery autumnal scene that definitely captures that atmosphere and propels you into Hardy’s world. Especially wonderful to sing are the story-telling songs like ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ and the tale of the Boy with the Violin. You get a real visualisation of each scenario and the music is full of the little touches that seemed to come naturally to Britten and which make the songs as powerful as they are. Then there’s that final song, such a deeply felt questioning of man’s goodness and the possibility that we are doing more harm than good on this earth. It’s something that Britten obviously contemplated quite deeply himself. The cycle contains a wonderful variety and is imbued with a great humanistic quality that partly stems from Hardy himself. I would have to say that it is my favourite of all the Britten cycles, and that’s because of the sheer quality combined with closeness to the heart.”

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