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Cheltenham Festival 2008 (10):  Music by Schubert. Mark Padmore (tenor); Paul Lewis (piano) Pittville Pump Room 19.7.2008 (JQ)

Franz Schubert: Winterreise D911

The final morning of the festival began with what was, surely, one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the whole programme: the opportunity to hear two exciting British performers teaming up for one of the greatest challenges in the lieder repertoire. Unsurprisingly, the Pittville Pump Room, both architecturally and acoustically a marvellous venue for such a recital, was filled to capacity.

On Thursday night we’d heard a fine performance of Schubert’s earlier cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin by Allan Clayton. In the last couplet of the song ‘Trockne Blumen’ the young protagonist sings:

“Der Mai ist kommen,
Der Winter is aus.”

May has come
Winter is over

In 1827, four years after Die Schöne Müllerin, Schubert returned to the poetry of Wilhelm Müller and this time those words could have been reversed for now all thoughts of Spring and Summer are far away and we encounter the same youth (?) in a much more bleak and inhospitable landscape. Though the emotional reach and range of Die Schöne Müllerin is far from inconsiderable, the scope of Winterreise dwarfs it and it poses formidable challenges, technical and interpretative, to the performers. It’s also an even more considerable test of stamina.

This recital provided yet more stimulating comparisons and contrasts with those on the two previous evenings. As had been the case for Die Schöne Müllerin the songs were entrusted to a tenor, which accords with my personal preference – though I’m always happy to hear a good bass or baritone performance of Winterreise. I was delighted that Paul Lewis was again at the piano because his perceptive playing had contributed greatly to the success of Die Schöne Müllerin. It was also instructive to observe the performance styles of the respective singers. Like Florian Boesch the previous night, Mark Padmore sang from memory. But whereas Boesch had used physical gestures and facial expressions as a powerful tool in his performance, Padmore eschewed gesticulation almost completely. Indeed, he kept his hands clasped in front of him nearly the whole time. This meant that almost everything was conveyed by his voice alone and, for me, that made his achievement in this performance all the more impressive.

The cycle began auspiciously, Lewis showing a lovely touch at the start of ‘Gute Nacht’. Padmore’s singing was simple yet expressive. His delivery was light and easy and already the performance of both musicians exuded authority. The modulation into the fourth stanza was suitably magical.

In ‘Die Wetterfahne Lewis depicted the gusts of wind brilliantly. During this vivid performance Padmore exhibited a wide tonal palette. ‘Der Lindenbaum’, taken at just the right slow pace, was excellent. At first the reading was touching but it became darker at the third stanza of the poem, the fifth was more animated and the sixth was delivered with an impressive simplicity. In the melancholy ‘Wasserflut’ Padmore regaled us with some wonderful top notes, both loud and soft. Both performers were extremely inward in this song, which made the occasional louder line all the more effective.

Lewis placed the staccato accompaniment to ‘Auf dem Flusse’ to perfection. In this song he provided some fabulous quiet playing. As was to be the case so often during the cycle as a whole, his contribution was most imaginative and he complemented Padmore’s singing at every turn. ’Irrlicht‘ calls for descriptive narrative in the singing and this was what we got. I particularly admired Padmore’s quiet head voice at the end. By now the performers were drawing the listeners into the drama inexorably and the audience was extremely attentive – in fact, as the cycle unfolded, one sensed in the clearing of throats and other stirrings between songs a palpable release of tension.

In ‘Rast’ Padmore sang an exquisite meliasma on the penultimate line of the first stanza (“Der Rücken fühlte keine Last”) before an emphatic, impassioned delivery of the last line. He repeated the feat just as impressively at the conclusion of the song’s other stanza. ‘Frühlingstraum’ begins with a delightful lilt, marvellously imparted by Lewis and then taken up seamlessly by Padmore. The lilt returns for the fourth stanza and Lewis made this transition a small thing of wonder. The last stanza of this song found Padmore marvellously poised, singing with what I can only call delicate anguish. This whole song was quite outstanding.

The opening of ‘Einsamkeit’ epitomised a key feature of Paul Lewis’s playing. Time and again in these songs the pianist has only a couple of introductory bars and it’s a huge interpretative challenge to establish the mood, the tone, for the reading in such a small span of time. Lewis succeeded every time so that the way was paved for his singer in an extraordinarily acute fashion.

There was the briefest of pauses only after this song, which is numerically the halfway point. This was the perfect place at which to break, for in his succinct but good programme notes Christopher Cook drew attention to Graham Johnson’s important point that Schubert originally composed the first twelve songs and wrote fine at the bottom of the manuscript. Subsequently he learned that Müller had written another dozen poems so he set those as well.

The second half of the cycle goes even deeper in both musical and emotional terms. Padmore rightly allowed a touch of harshness into his tone for ‘Die Krähe’ No one in my experience has better conveyed the menace of this song than Peter Schreier but Padmore was suitably sinister in a graphic performance. ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ is an extraordinary song. Its disjointed, staccato piano part sounds a hundred years ahead of its time. Padmore’s account of the vocal line was most intense. He almost spat out the second line of the third verse (“Fallt mit ihm die Hoffnung ab”) after which the despair in the last two lines was searing.

‘Im Dorfe’ was just as atmospheric. Here Padmore gave us a real insight into the mindset of the outcast. There was tremendous bite in his rendition of ‘Der stürmische Morgen’. He and Lewis brought a palpable stillness to the opening of ‘Der Wegweiser’ and genuine pathos to the second stanza. The music of the last verse of this song is stripped back to bare essentials and Padmore’s performance displayed real inwardness.

The grave piano introduction to ‘Das Wirthaus’ was breathtaking. Both singer and pianist gave a riveting performance of this song and their technical control was enviable. The traveller rallies briefly in ‘Mut’ and Padmore brought steely determination to this song, defying fate if only for a few moments.

‘Der Nebensonnen’ is another extraordinary song and it inspired another extraordinary performance.  Padmore sang with a lovely, plangent tone at the start but verse two began as an anguished outcry before, all passion spent, he sank back into inwardness for the rest of the song, ending it on the barest thread of music. And then came ‘Der Leiermann’. Lewis played the drone figure in the left hand as acutely as any pianist I’ve heard. He and Padmore gave an otherworldly rendition of this song, the music pared back to the barest essentials. It was utterly compelling. The technical control and emotional identification needed to produce such an account must be immense yet one was completely unaware of questions of technique. You could have heard the proverbial pin drop during this song and when it was over there was silence for several seconds as if everyone present was reluctant to break the spell.

This performance of Winterreise was nothing less than a triumph with superb singing and equally superb pianism united to interpret a great masterpiece in an intense and utterly compelling way. It’s a tribute to the artistry of Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis - and to the genius of Schubert - that these two men held the entire audience spellbound for eighty minutes. They thoroughly deserved the ovation they received. This was one of those occasions when a magnificent performance was caught on the wing and we in the audience were privileged to be part of it. But in saying that I note that both these artists have recorded for the Harmonia Mundi label; a CD recording of Winterreise by them would be a mouth-watering proposition.

End piece

This was the last concert that I attended at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival. Due to other commitments – not least those of the day job! – I’ve only been able to attend nine concerts, which is only a small proportion of the sixty or so events that have made up the festival. However, I’ve been able to attend nearly all the concerts that most attracted me. Without exception the artistic standard at those concerts has been tremendously high. Moreover the programme planning has been imaginative and thoughtful. It’s also been evident from snippets of conversations that I’ve overheard that there’s been a general buzz around the festival and that other events that I haven’t attended have been well received by the audience.

So there’s every reason for Meurig Bowen to reflect that his first festival has been a conspicuous artistic success. Given the troubled economic climate, which can’t be good news for the arts in Britain, I hope that the festival will have been a commercial success too. I have enjoyed the 2008 Festival enormously and I look forward keenly to next year’s offerings.

John Quinn

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