Mark Padmore & Roger Vignoles – Schwanengesang

Maigesang [from Op.52]; Neue Liebe, neues Leben [from Op.75]; Adelaide, Op.46; An die ferne Geliebte, Op.98
Schwanengesang, D957

Mark Padmore (tenor) & Roger Vignoles (piano)

Reviewed by: Graham Rogers

Reviewed: 24 May, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Mark Padmore. Photograph: Marco BorggreveFew people know the great Schubert song-cycles as well as Mark Padmore, who confesses to having listened to them “obsessively” in his late teens and twenties, and to collecting more than 50 recordings of the first, “Die schöne Müllerin”. Such passion, researched in depth, undoubtedly gives an artist particular insights which, when combined with someone of Padmore’s artistic calibre, can prove richly rewarding.

This recital marked the concluding instalment of Padmore’s three-concert survey of Schubert’s cycles at Wigmore Hall, a terrific marathon for any singer – in which Padmore amply demonstrated his great commitment to, and special affinity for, these remarkable songs. Partnered in each by a different pianist, Padmore was joined for this recital by the peerless Roger Vignoles.

Franz Schubert“Schwanengesang” is the odd one out among Schubert’s cycles, as its songs were almost certainly not intended as a cycle at all – rather, they were most likely collected after his death by his opportunistic publisher. It is also the shortest of the cycles; which happily allowed for a delightful first-half of songs that helped pave the way towards Schubert’s mastery in the genre. The well-chosen Beethoven selection charted the development of the Lieder from its Classical origins with the charming “Adelaide” from 1795 (admired by Robert Louis Stevenson) through to the ground-breaking Romantic cycle (generally considered to be the first such) “An die ferne Geliebte” of 1816. Despite the gulf in time, and great development of Beethoven’s style, a melancholy thread unifies the songs, reflecting the composer’s failure to find requited love.

Padmore captured just the right tone, carrying an emotional impact all the more moving for its directness and simplicity. Vignoles provided stylish, understated accompaniment, taxed only slightly by the more demanding passages towards the end of the cycle (in the manner of Beethoven’s piano-sonata writing).

Despite the probability that “Schwanengesang” was not written as a cycle, the settings of Rellstab, Heine and Seidl form a remarkably cohesive whole, linked by a theme of longing. Padmore gave a committed, fully engaged performance, singing directly to the audience inviting us to share his involvement with the songs. His voice, often beautifully creamy, was not effortless; but the occasional struggle at the extreme ends of his registers added a compelling human dimension to the unfolding tales of yearning. Vignoles provided sensitive, idiomatic and thoughtful accompaniment.

One of the most well-known of all Schubert songs, the outwardly simple ‘Ständchen’ revealed an underlying quiet intensity. Impassioned power surfaced in the dark-hewn ‘In der Ferne’, immediately contrasted with the most cheerful of the songs, ‘Abschied’ – although tinged with an increasingly apparent melancholy.

Roger Vignoles. Photograph: Ben EalovegaThe pained torment of ‘Der Atlas’ was grippingly turbulent, while ‘Das Fischermädchen’ had a delightful, easy-going charm. The darkly tragic ‘Die Stadt’ was poised, saving its greatest intensity for the stillness of the sunrise.

Bleakest of all, with its sparse accompaniment, the mesmerising reading of ‘Der Doppelgänger’ was truly chilling. The ending, ‘Die Taubenpost’ (the sole Seidl setting and Schubert’s last ever song), was taken at a steady pace, imbued perhaps with a touch too much sentimentality; but it was hard to begrudge from a singer for whom this song evidently has so much meaning and emotion, and who had treated us to such an intelligent and captivating performance.

A further treat was in store: an encore in the form of “Auf dem Strom” (D943) featuring an obbligato cello played by Steven Isserlis. As Padmore explained, there are not many songs that could follow the finality and all-embracing pathos of ‘Die Taubenpost’; and despite beautifully sweet, delicate playing from Isserlis, I’m not convinced that “Auf dem Strom” was one of them. But it would be churlish to criticise what would, in other circumstances, have been a performance of pure joy.

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