Benjamin Britten: In Memoriam – Hardy, Blake & Hölderlin

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo, Op.22
Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente, Op.61
Winter Words, Op.52

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 4 December, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

In his tribute to Benjamin Britten on Classical Source, Mark Padmore expresses a deep love for “Winter Words”, proclaiming it to be his favourite “because of the sheer quality combined with closeness to the heart.”

Padmore and regular accompanist Roger Vignoles gave a vividly pictorial account of the grouping (which can be loosely regarded as a cycle), bringing Britten’s settings of Thomas Hardy to life. In ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ we chuckled at the insensitivity of the vicar, his wish to get the service over quickly told in Padmore’s humorous aside. The railway-themed poems inhabited a much darker emotional world, with Vignoles’s piano setting the scene perfectly as it caught the haunting ‘Midnight On The Great Western’. As both told the story of ‘The Railway Station, Upway’, Padmore’s application of vibrato seemed just right, as it was, too, in the moving ‘Before and After Life’, the climax borne of considerable volume but expression, too.

Undertaking the challenge of delivering a lunchtime recital in three languages, Padmore began with Britten’s declarations of love for Peter Pears, the “Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo”. The high spirited declamation of ‘Sonetto XVI’ brought a flourish from Vignoles, and while the timbre for ‘Sonetto XXXI’ could have been judged a touch harsh, Padmore held its final note beautifully.

Elsewhere there were magical moments – the well-judged portamento to end ‘Sonetto XXXVIII’, then the final one, where Padmore’s voice cracked ever so slightly on the word ‘perdoni’ in a most affecting way, with Vignoles’s stern piano introduction muted to a more elegiac approach.

The Hölderlin fragments, the least known repertoire in the concert, were given a persuasive performance. Vignoles dictated the distinctively rocking motion for ‘Der Heimat’, the fisherman’s joy at returning home tinged by a yearning for peace found by Padmore. His storytelling communicated directly with the capacity audience, though the transition from boy to man in ‘Die Jugend’ could have secured a more carefree opening. However the single lines that interwove for the counterpoint at the start of ‘Sokrates und Alcibiades’ were restrained yet intense, with Vignoles’s placing of the long phrases ideal. Finally ‘Die Linien des Lebens’ took a slow tempo and progressed in power and stature, the tenor in full control.

In celebrating to the very day of the 30th-anniversary of Britten’s death, Padmore showed himself to be an ideal tenor voice for the composer – slightly rounded, with a brightness of tone that found itself perfectly complemented by Roger Vignoles’s sensitively shaded piano accompaniment.

As an encore they offered a beautiful excerpt from “Paul Bunyan”, which I took to be the ‘Rejected Love Song’. It was an ideal footnote.

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