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Seen and Heard Recital Review

 

Franz Schubert: Winterreise, Mark Padmore (tenor), Julius Drake (piano), Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 11th October, 2004 (AO)

 

The Oxford Lieder Festival may only be in its third year, but it has grown dramatically – it is now definitely "on the map" as Festivals go. It was started by a group of enthusiasts who perform for sheer love of the genre, and this spirit of joy infuses the Festival still.

 

Centred around the historic Holywell Music Room, the Festival features musicians famous and "on their way", speakers before every concert, and a good programme booklet with notes by Richard Stokes. Very well organised and planned, it's guiding light, the pianist Sholto Kynoch, should have an exceptional career in event and arts management if he turned his mind to it. He would be able to contribute so much, for he is both a wise manager and a sensitive musician.

 

Mark Padmore is well known in early music and baroque, but sings Lieder too. Last year he sang Schumann's Dichterliebe at the Oxford Chamber Music Festival and he has also recorded Schumann for Hyperion. Schubert's Winterreise, however is a singular piece of music, different from any other. It is music that challenges both performers and listeners.

 

Padmore was in fine voice, mellifluous and beautifully modulated. He takes the cycle at a somewhat higher range than many tenors do, and makes much of the abilities in his voice. There were many very pretty moments, such as "an dich hab' ich gedacht" with a slight trill on the "hab'". I looked forward to hearing how he would treat the lovelier, less traumatic songs such as ‘Der Lindenbaum’ and ‘Frühlingstraum’, and indeed, he sang these with a limpid loveliness. The passage in the latter song, where the wanderer ponders who might have painted "leaves" of frost on the windowpane, is sung almost sotto voce.

 

But sheer beauty is not what Winterreise is necessarily about. It can be a horrific journey into despair, even into a kind of psychosis. There are less neurotic interpretations too, like Holzmair's, which emphasizes the wanderer's sense of wonder at Nature's phenomena. I'm really not sure what Padmore's concept of Winterreise may be. His singing is good, but Winterreise works best with a sense of conviction behind it. Conveying intense anguish involves more than just singing loudly at emphatic passages. The last verse in ‘Wasserflut’, for example, can be emoted without giving an approximation of shouting. There's plenty of artistry in Padmore's presentation. For example, "Fühlst in der Still erst deinen Wurm mit heissen Stich sich regen" is plaintive, almost tearful. It plucks the heartstrings, to be sure, but I'd personally go for a deeper sense of the inner struggle of the wanderer, and of emotion innately felt. Padmore's diction and phrasing show his experience, but in Winterreise that's not all. At the end, the artistry was used to good effect. Padmore closed his eyes and held his breath for an unusually long time, thus holding the audience silent. Again, I would have preferred that the audience themselves held the silence unbidden.

 

Julius Drake was, as usual, a superb accompanist, steady and imaginative. How beautifully he conveyed the turbulent winds that shake the weathervane, and the frozen tears that drop from the wanderers eyes. His expressiveness was a joy – I've lost count of the Winterreises he's played, and they were all good. The Holywell Music Room itself should be mentioned, because as a venue it enhances any performance. Its acoustic is legendary. Performers and audience are so physically so close that communication is direct. It has an uncanny ability to make any recital sound intimate. Few venues contribute so markedly to a performance. Any concert in the Holywell is worth attending – I look forward to many more in this excellent Festival.

 

Anne Ozorio



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