Mark Padmore (tenor) & Julius Drake (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: 21 May, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
When I last heard “Winterreise”, Julius Drake was the pianist, partnering Alice Coote. Her approach was operatic, using hunched posture, gesture and movement to underline her interpretation of the ongoing journey, eyes downcast, as if withdrawn into a personal communion of suffering. Mark Padmore, by contrast, stood bolt upright, gaze directed at eye-level, thrusting his feelings outward, offering the audience free access to his inner experiences, sparing us nothing, indeed threatening to scorch us at times with the intensity of his anguish.
Padmore’s brightly-coloured tenor timbre seemed initially to promise a lighter, less tragic reading of the cycle than his predecessor’s organ-like sound. In the opening song he offered conventional beauty of tone without irony in the soft description of his nocturnal companions and in the words of farewell. Only Drake’s sudden marcatos in the accompaniment suggested the hero might be deceiving himself. The second song gave these doubts substance. The weather-vane flew round aggressively, reflecting the wanderer’s incipient disorientation. In ‘Erstarrung’ panic set in for both performers, as they seemingly struggled to catch up with the girl’s footsteps or any other keepsake of her presence. As early as the third song, ‘Gefrorne Tränen’, the musical trademark of this performance and the means of access to the character’s psyche had been established. In that song we heard for the first time the distinct difference between the two statements of the final verse, with the intensity turned up the second time, only mildly in this case, though later songs were to exhibit full-blown and violent contrasts.
There were short-lived moments of straightforward beauty from Padmore. The rustling of the lime-tree in the subject’s memory received a beautiful, hazy treatment, with the words floated on the tone, while even in the traveller’s account of passing the leaf-less tree earlier in the day there was consolation to be found. With this preparation, Drake’s hammer-blows signalling the onset of freezing winds were all the more shocking. They were followed by ever-increasing emphasis on the bell-like figures in the right-hand as the last two stanzas unfolded, mockingly reminding the traveller of his loss. Come the following song, ‘Wasserflut’, a mood of despondency had become established.
‘Frühlingstraum’, the counterpart to ‘Der Lindenbaum’, also began with an evocation of the conventional beauty of nature and Padmore even neatly decorated the second dream reference but the final lines found the voice sinking audibly into the helplessness of the traveller’s situation began to dawn on him. In ‘Einsamkeit’ the final verse portrayed him as bewildered by the tranquillity of the surrounding environment and its failure to reflect his own suffering.
Understanding arrived in ‘Der greise Kopf’, the turning-point of the cycle in this interpretation. After a pause at “dass mir’s vor meiner Jugend graut”, the singer choked almost inaudibly at the realisation of the long wait for the release of death that awaited him. Thereafter there could be no room for optimism, only resignation to the hopelessness of his search. So in ‘Im Dorfe’ the line ‘und morgen früh ist alles vergessen’ was thrown away. There was to be no more dreaming of resurrecting the past: the thought had crystallised of a quest for release through death.
Vocally, anguish was expressed with varied resource. In ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ the singer froze in the repetition of “wein’ auf meiner Hoffnung Grab”. In ‘Der Wegweiser’ the repeated final verse began in a whisper, with a spectacular diminuendo on “Keiner” in the last line to signal the renewed realisation of hopelessness. This approach to the repetitions operated at a measured tempo (‘Auf dem Flusse’), at breakneck speed and with jagged accents (‘Mut!’) and even at pianissimo (‘Die Krähe’). Padmore never failed to find a tone quality to embody the intensity of the moment.
The fast songs offered no relief. ‘Die Post’, which sometimes feels, despite its desperate message, like a brief escape from the relentless misery of the slower songs, was uniformly grim. By the time he reached ‘Mut!’ the protagonist was heedless of his position and out of touch with reality.
Drake had clearly re-thought his part, both overall and in detail, to reflect Padmore’s interpretation. In ‘Rast’ Schubert has written a piano line suggesting the traveller’s faltering steps, contradicting his claim of having strode on unaware of his exhaustion. Drake sustained these chords, made them more prominent in the second half of the song, where they often retreat, and even used them to bring a decisive ending to the song. In ‘Irrlicht’ I have never heard the upward figure representing the will-o’-the-wisp played so fast; he must have been a difficult spirit to catch! Drake’s accompaniment in ‘Täuschung’ was a powerful, dominant presence, almost overpowering the voice. While Padmore darkly portrayed the inn as uncompromisingly hostile, it was Drake’s fortissimo postlude that rammed home the gloomy message. These performers seemed to attempt to break out of the cycle in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ but the final lines, powerfully begun in a unanimous fortissimo, faded to a quiet whimper, faced with the inexorable fact that this song simply goes round in circles repeating the same melodic figure.
To the final song – and a hoped-for answer to the enigma. ‘Der Leiermann” proceeded in a fairly orthodox way until the point where the singer addresses the organ-grinder directly. Padmore, for the first and only time, took a pace forward and, in a searingly plaintive forte, implored the old man to allow him to accompany him, a clear metaphor for the death for which he had been longing. But one question was only replaced by another: would this phenomenon be just another mirage to follow the solitary remaining leaf of ‘Letzte Hoffnung’, the sleeping village of ‘Im Dorfe’, the light of ‘Täuschung’, the signpost or the inn? Would there in future be more promises to follow on this journey, raising his hopes each time, only to crumble as he touched them? Was the destination of Padmore’s traveller not death but a life of eternal torment here on earth?
This was a “Winterreise” which emphasised the forbidding element implicit in the work and put the audience through the wringer, increasingly so as the end approached. It was acclaimed.