Myrthen, Op.25 [selections: Widmung; Freisinn; Der Nussbaum; Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan I; Die Lotosblume; Jemand; Hochländers Abschied; Hochländisches Wiegenlied; Aus den hebräischen Gesängen; Rätsel; Venetianisches Lied I & II; Was will die einsame Träne?; Du bist wie eine Blume
L’allegro, il penseroso ed il moderato – As steals the morn
Dialogo di ninfa e pastore; Ardo, e scoprir; L’incoronazione di Poppaea – Pur ti miro
Tanzlied, Op.78/1; Er und Sie Op.78/2; In der Nacht, Op. 78/4; Unterm Fenster, Op. 34/3
Kate Royal (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 6 May, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
This was Election Night. Seeking topicality I noted Scottish Nationalism in four pieces of music to words by Robert Burns and the inner workings of superpower politics in Monteverdi’s depiction of imperial Rome. No election fever, though, among the sober and relaxed concertgoers towards what was a programme endearingly devoted to love and partnership. The first half was assigned to solo songs alternating between the singers, though they never left each others’ side, the second to duets.
Mark Padmore’s residency is a significant element of Wigmore Hall’s current brand. He is a prominent public face of its educational programme, an inter-generational supporter of the coming crop of singers and the leading English tenor of his own era, the anointed successor to the late Philip Langridge. The voice is slimmer, reedier than Langridge’s, his musicianship equally estimable, his range of repertoire comparable, with commitment to twentieth-century music conspicuous in it. Perhaps he will soon follow Langridge into more mainstream opera.
Schumann’s “Myrthen” comprises a bouquet of assorted flowers that Schumann presented to Clara Wieck in the year of their marriage. Just fourteen of the twenty-six songs of the collection (originally published in four parts) were performed but they reflected its diversity: the contrast between male and female characteristics in Book I, for example, or the British emphasis of the texts in Book III. Above all, the composer’s barely concealed love for Clara stood out as it should.
Padmore took the songs of outdoor, independent exhilaration, such as ‘Freisinn’ and ‘Hochländers Abschied’. Beauty of tone with him is often sacrificed to intensity of declamation. In the second of the Burn settings there was no hint of safety first: the high-flying final line of each stanza was a repeated example, indeed the last mention of the poet’s love of the highlands prompted little short of a scream.
At the other extreme, Padmore reduced his voice to a mere whisper in the first of the Venetian Songs. The gondolier is enjoined to conceal his part in the intended elopement with repeated ppp utterances of “leise” und “sacht”. He and Roger Vignoles brought out the combination of folksong simplicity and contrapuntal sophistication in ‘Aus den hebräischen Gesängen’, a forerunner of ‘Zwielicht’ from the Opus 39 “Liederkreis”. Finally the singer completed the picture by offering natural lyricism in ‘Die bist wie eine Blume’.
In a collection of what are predominantly miniatures Kate Royal was allocated most of the meat. It would be patronising to suggest that Padmore was taking this soprano under his wing for Royal’s voice is already the finished article, its glowing timbre accompanied by sparkling highlights. Here, just occasionally, I found it a fraction too big for this early-Romantic repertoire. But there were never any doubts about the maturity of her interpretations; her sympathy with the poetic moods was undeniable.
She was enraptured in the opening Dedication (‘Widmung’), the whole of her life and personality defined by her lover’s input. Her ‘Der Nussbaum’ was exquisite. Rubato was accommodated within an overall flow. The song’s momentum ebbs away in the concluding lines; in this performance one felt that the girl had been falling asleep the whole way through, so hypnotic had been the mood created by Royal and through Vignoles’s dreamy accompaniment. The singer’s range is ideally suited to this song. She articulated firmly the string of Ds below the stave and the regular leap to an F sharp and stepwise descent was impeccably managed. The lightness of touch she had displayed there was contrasted with the sultry weight with which she imbued ‘Die Lotosblume’. The powerful opening of this flower was quite different from her depiction of the delicate walnut blossoms but the covered top notes were equally assured. If most of the memorable moments came in the best-known songs, her account of ‘Hochländisches Wiegenlied’ laid claim for that song to be ranked alongside the lullabies of Schubert and Brahms, the rough-and-ready Burns text softened by affectionate music for the voice, Royal’s upward intervals reminiscent of the purity associated with a singer of the previous generation, Margaret Price.
For established collectors the first two duets after the interval will most likely evoke memories of the 1950s’ recording by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Irmgard Seefried, inauthentic doubtless but sublime as sound. In the Handel, while not matching that in beauty of sound, Royal and Padmore offered equal command of legato, evenness in the runs and unanimity in the vocal counterpoint as well as in the passages in thirds.
The Monteverdi pieces were well contrasted. The dialogue of nymph and shepherd was highly entertaining as the two protagonists feverishly circled each other in the throes of hyped-up passion, projected with the right degree of parody. In “Ardo, e scoprir” the genuine pain of mutual shyness sometimes burst through the surface in unrestrained cries of torment. The closing duet from “L’Incoronazione di Poppaea” with its intricately interwoven and imitative lines concluded by the two voices melting serenely in union, was magnificent.
Three of the Schumann duets which ended the programme were the more sophisticated work of the Schumann of 1849. The Geibel poem “In der Nacht”, also set by Hugo Wolf, with its emotional depth and tense phrasing, benefited particularly from the growing size of Royal’s instrument. The tactic of concluding with the lighter, mirthful “Unterm Fenster” of 1840 was well repaid, giving a happy ending to an enterprising programme and a felicitous evening.
With Roger Vignoles at the piano scholarly input to programme-building and rehearsal can be taken as read, as can technical command. In addition, one characteristic and rewarding feature of this accompanist is that he so visibly shares the emotional climate of each song with the singer(s). How endearing is the grin which crosses his face at the conclusion of a song such as Schumann’s ‘Rätsel’ or after he has himself delivered a witty postlude, as in the second gondola song.