Mark Padmore & Paul Lewis at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte & Schubert’s Schwanengesang

Mailied, Op.52/4; Neue Liebe, neues Leben, Op.75/2; Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel, WoO150
An die ferne Geliebte, Op.98
Schwanengesang, D957

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Paul Lewis (piano)

Reviewed by: Mark Valencia

Reviewed: 14 June, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Mark PadmoreThey’re like The Odd Couple, Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis, the former dapper in natty suit and tie, the latter a tad louche with his shaggy hair and loose-fitting shirt. But put them together and the result is musical magic, as this recital (previously performed in Wigmore Hall two nights earlier) demonstrated. It was an occasion where the singer’s every note and the pianist’s every chord were attuned in the service of two great composers.

The pairing of Beethoven and Schubert is not at all odd though, especially when the older man’s song-cycle (the first such ever written) An die ferne Geliebte is programmed alongside the great Lieder composer’s last. Schwanengesang is more compilation than cycle, a publisher’s expedient gathering-together of Schubert’s late thoughts. Yet so affecting is its cumulative power that this so-called ‘Swansong’ more than deserves its place in the canon alongside Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise – especially in a performance as intense and cohesive as this.

Paul Lewis. Photograph: Jack LiebeckPaul Lewis found stylistic differences between the seven Rellstab settings, which he treated with a consistently light touch, and the six Heine for which his approach became bigger, bolder and harder. This makes good sense: the Heine sequence is akin to a mini-Winterreise, all lowering gloom and nightmare imagery – qualities that were very much to the fore in the livid colours of Mark Padmore’s hallucinatory interpretation. ‘Der Atlas’ concluded on a deafening fff at “Und jetzo bist du elend” (And now you are wretched), after which the darkness barely lifted. From the despair of “Dass ich dich verloren hab’!” (I have lost you!) at the close of ‘Ihr Bild’ to the singer’s unbridled terror at ‘Der Doppelgänger’, a Hammer Horror of a song at the best of times, this was less a winter’s journey than a spiral into Hell.

Schubert’s de facto postlude, Seidl’s Die Taubenpost, was like sorbet after a feast: a throwback to the mood of Schubert’s halcyon days, as if the dying composer were declaring “I’m still here”. The preceding Rellstab songs saw both performers in subtler mood, colouring and shading the music with a shared artistry that was often quite glorious. Their muted approach to the opening ‘Liebesbotschaft’ had a purpose: it allowed the second song, ‘Kriegers Ahnung’, to startle the listener with some ominous piano chords and rich vocal textures. Time stood still in the famous ‘Ständchen’, while in Padmore’s brilliant account of ‘In der Ferne’ the Fugitive’s mercurial emotions travelled from self-pity through reconciliation to optimism.

The programme had opened with three well-chosen songs by Beethoven. Mailied radiated joy, while Neue Liebe, neues Leben and Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel heralded the variegated riches to come from these artists. Since both performers are masters of musical coloration, Beethoven’s unelaborate approach to verse-setting gave them a ready canvas on which to paint, and they seized on the opportunity to enrich An die ferne Geliebte. Thus Padmore barely breathed his utterance of “Weht so leise der Wind” (The wind blows so softly) while Lewis conjured up the ‘Distant Beloved’ with every key-stroke in the closing song, ‘Nimm sie hin denn, diese Lieder’.

In a recital founded on interpretational sophistication and nuanced artistry, anything seemed possible except for two things: that the tenor would falter or the pianist would fluff. Odd couple or not, the shared technical security and near-telepathic congruence of the Padmore-Lewis partnership meant that two exceptional performers were free to make music of the highest order.

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