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“The balance between poetry and music is essential to me”: Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout talk to Aart van der Wal - 3.12.2010 (AvdW)

The record label Harmonia Mundi had set the date and time for the interview on Friday, 3 December, at 6 PM. I was asked to arrive a few hours earlier to attend the rehearsals for that same evening’s concert. The program: Schumann’s (1810-1856) Dichterliebe Op 48 and Liederkreis Op 24, together with five Heine songs (from Sängerfahrt Op. 33) by Franz Paul Lachner (1803-1890). The artists: the British tenor Mark Padmore (b. 1961) and his musical partner, the South African pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout (b. 1979).The instrument: on stage one would hardly associate the 1837 French Erard piano with Robert Schumann, although Clara played on such an instrument when giving concerts at the Conservatoire and the Erard salon in Paris in 1839. Andreas Staier recorded a number of piano solo works by Schumann on that same instrument for Harmonia Mundi. The venue: the ‘Jurriaanse’ chamber music hall, part of the grand Doelen concert complex in Rotterdam. The weather: dark and grey, with low temperatures and snow just around the corner.

In the hall I spotted Edwin Beunk, the indefatigable Dutch collector and restorer of old pianos, who is so frequently on the road with 'his' instruments that he sometimes forgets where he is. It is nothing special for him to be in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Enschede this week, and in a few days at the Salzburg Mozarteum, always of course with one of his precious instruments that need to be tuned for the next recital.

The workshop in Enschede is always busy, having the facilities needed to do all the woodwork, to work on the strings, the keyboard mechanism and the pedals. Very old instruments are taken apart and are rebuilt with original materials. Missing parts are copied from similar instruments, using old materials and assembling techniques. Beunk and his staff take quite a bit of pride in having rented out restored instruments for concerts and recordings. Indeed, these are often booked years in advance, and have never failed to perform.

His experience ranges from the Viennese 'Hammerklavier' of Mozart's time up to the instruments of the Brahms era, but also includes pianos built by companies such as Broadwood in England and Pleyel and Erard in France. For this occasion, Beunk himself brought the 1837 Erard in his van from his workshop in Enschede. When I arrived he had just finished tuning for the rehearsal. Later on, he would tune for the evening concert.

Expecting a rather short rehearsal, I was amazed to find that both performers were eager to do the major part of the two song cycles, along with a few Lachner songs. I felt privileged to be the only witness of two of the greatest artists of our time working with great zest on these songs they knew so well, music they knew by heart. And yet, there is always the challenge to do it even better, to work on specific shadings, to create an even more expressive sound on the keyboard and to try to get the meaning of a song exactly right straight from the beginning. After about ninety minutes I pointed to my watch, asking Padmore when he would stop. “Just give us a few more minutes. We still want to try a Lachner song, but then we shall be all yours.”

And so it was. We decided to have a quick bite to eat in the concert hall's restaurant. The meal certainly suited the occasion: British fish and chips. Time to talk!

The Piano

Different Pianists

Padmore once said that he used to be treacherous with his pianists. The list proves his point: in the past he was partnered by Graham Johnson, Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner, Paul Lewis and now Kristian Bezuidenhout.


His previous partnership, with Lewis, came about by chance, after they had coincidentally met at Marseilles airport. As with Bezuidenhout, who was invited by violinist and festival director Daniel Hope to accompany Padmore in Schubert’s Winterreise in Savannah, Georgia. Daniel, who had already collaborated with both of them individually, ‘engineered’ the duo recital. It so happened that this collaboration was an instant and great success, followed a couple of years later by a concert in Cologne. Then came this Schumann/Lachner project, which was recorded by Harmonia Mundi in London.


Could it be of any significance that both Padmore and Bezuidenhout were once wind players, the former playing the clarinet and the latter the flute? Mark did not think so, but Kristian thought it plausible that the way in which a wind player ‘colours’ the music might also affect his piano playing. They are almost physically aware of tone colour by the connection between airstream and tone, which is quite different from the pianist only touching the keyboard. Admittedly, it is a theory, and certainly not more than that, but it could work that way.


In one of his many interviews Mark Padmore asserted that when working with Paul Lewis he found his beauty of tone unsurpassable. How would the tenor define it now, working with Kristian? “What I highly esteem in working with Kris is not only his great musicianship as a pianist, but also his absolutely marvellous feeling for the poetry itself. His great sensitivity to the text and the way it plays out in the music. What I’ve found in his playing is what I’ve looked for myself: that very, very special blending of the poetry in the words with the poetry in the music. My ultimate goal is that we can both deliver this in a concert.”

So it all comes down to perceptiveness and responsiveness?

“Yes! I believe that this is essential. For me it would not work in any other way. But there is more to it, like Kristian playing on old pianos, one of his many virtues. He has his unique way of exploiting those ravishing tone colours, the subtleties he can bring to it, and the excitement we both experience when hearing new sounds from such an old instrument, like from this Erard. It is so much different from that of a Steinway, no matter how beautiful that instrument can sound.”

Kristian Bezuidenhout

Old and New

Kristian: “There are not that many singers around who can easily switch between the sound of a Steinway and an authentic instrument like this 1837 Erard. The Steinway delivers great sonorities, impressive resonance and strong projections in large concert halls, but with the Erard, and particularly the Viennese pianos from the early nineteenth century, there is no struggle, really. With such an old instrument, singers suddenly find their voice far too big for it, or even for the room. They may feel a little bit nervous or even tense about it, but they quickly understand that another projection is required from them. With Mark, this happens to be a great experience, because we can explore so many ranges of colours together. He encourages me to experiment with special pedals sounds and legato, with phrasing, dynamics and a real, real pianissimo. We feel that it is this kind of transparency that can be highly beneficial to such great music.”

With a modern Steinway, any good accompanist must have a clear understanding of balancing with the singer, and especially in the piano’s lower middle register there is the immediate rivalry with the tenor. I would say that the rather delicate tone registers of those old instruments suit the voice very well. Thanks to this refinement, a tenor does need not surpass his natural limits to make himself heard.

Kristian: “It’s fair to say that there is less negotiation needed. The piano’s textures are very refined; there are even clear evocations of other instruments. And there are those diversities of contrast in the various registers that can be musically exploited.

Kristian Bezuidenhout and Mark Padmore - Picture © Foto Marco Borggreve for Harmonia Mundi

No Prima Donnas

In the past, and even not so long ago, there were pianists like Gerald Moore (“Am I too loud?”) who were almost exclusively devoted to accompanying singers. Today we have a fascinating variety of great piano soloists in the lied repertoire. But not everyone is enthusiastic about this development. For instance, there is the probably everlasting suggestion that soloists should not be engaged with the lieder repertoire, as they are supposedly too much occupied with their own solo career or too self-conscious in their musical interpretation. They are not ‘at the singer’s service’, but rather they feel the need to shine themselves. No prima donnas, please!

Mark: “I can only say that one of the benefits of working with great soloists like Lewis, Fellner and Kris is their huge knowledge of the piano solo repertoire, but also of the concertos. For instance, Paul and Till have played all of the Beethoven sonatas and concertos. I clearly recognize and appreciate that broad field of experience in their association with me.”

Kristian: “It is very interesting that Mark works with top level pianists so often. It is another key to how to reach a much higher and much more respectable level, compared to the kind of factory mentality, which has the star diva doing her voice recital with her accompanist once in a season. That is what makes it so refreshing and illuminating to work with Mark.”

Mark: “There’s another good reason for working with different pianists: the sense that each time there is that slight blankness to begin with, the empty bottle that needs to be filled. We imagine that along the way we reach out and arrive at new ideas. Not the kind of bland repetition that ultimately kills all music.”

No Pianistic Convenience

Beethoven (as in his late sonatas) and Schubert did not particularly write with pianistic convenience in mind. In Schubert’s Winterreise, for instance, there are many plain lines and straightforward chord progressions which fail to inspire great playing. Schubert did not regard the piano part itself as a milestone, but rather – it seems to me - the cycle as a whole. We hear many glorious inventions, adventures and refinements alongside many undemanding passages.

Kristian: “There are pieces pianists don’t like to play. A piece like the Lindenbaum looks very simple in technique, but I can tell you that it is very difficult to bring off as an interpretation. Much of Schubert’s keyboard writing is rather awkward and strangely placed, with a great deal of the voicing that making fluidity difficult. You may feel a little bit pressured by it sometimes. It is not very giving keyboard playing, in the way you would play a Mozart sonata, for instance. You instantly feel that Mozart understood every aspect of the keyboard. He never wrote in a way that creates hardship to a pianist. Even the difficult stuff he wrote is still very comfortable and idiosyncratic. Compared to Schubert, and particularly his sonatas, it is comparatively easier to find the light at the end of Mozart’s tunnel.”

Perhaps Schubert was less connected to the keyboard as a musician and a composer?

Kristian: “Perhaps he was. Thinking of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, and to a certain extent Mendelssohn, there is obviously that very strong connection. However, Schubert’s career was simply not focused on that. So it is quite understandable. What counts in the end is the message, and less so its conveyance.”

Mark: “Not with Schumann! His songs reveal exactly the opposite: these are piano pieces with vocal accompaniment! Here it is often Kris who dominates the scene, not me!”

Kristian: “Mozart’s songs are quite a different story, though. Their whole texture is different. For instance, the right hand often contains the same material as the singer’s part. This changed dramatically at the beginning of the nineteenth century. With Schumann, you get an often very complicated piano part and a very rich sound image with obbligato tenor! It makes it even more striking to hear all this on a well-kept period instrument. It is amazing how diverse, how adventurous this can sound.”

Mark: “That’s particularly true of Schumann. I think that in his Dichterliebe, the piano carries in many ways more emotional weight than the voice. As a singer I become very conscious of this, drawing more attention to the piano in my performances. This is what I also try to convey to the audience. There are singers who lose interest in the piano part as soon as their part ends, but I don’t think that it should be that way. Apart from that, a singer who doesn’t much care about the words itself can’t do any justice to this music.”

How Does It Sound?

At the rehearsal, Padmore asked me a few times if the balance was right from my seating position in the hall. “The balance between poetry and music is essential to me, as it is in Dichterliebe. Balancing the voice and the piano is terribly important. I don’t want people to hear this recital and think it’s just Schumann, because it’s Heine as well. The poetry is wonderful and I really wish people to go home and also think a little bit about Heine. If that happens, if I feel that the audience really pays attention, when I get that sense from the public, when I can draw their attention to the whole thing, the singing, the piano
and the words, then, and only then am I satisfied. To me this makes all the difference between a good performance and a most telling one.”

Sometimes, when an old piano is waiting on a still empty stage, I have noticed some premonition in the audience. As if they were thinking ‘good heavens, will we have that one-dimensional honky-tonky sound again tonight?’.

Mark: “People’s ears are used to the grandest of grand pianos and much less so to the more elusive sound of old instruments. There is not much in my hand that could change that attitude. The main thing here is that there is so much prejudice around it that it can be hard to appreciate those lovely, fine-graded colours in the many registers. Of course, as performers, we love the beauty of sound of the Steinway grand, but it’s like driving in a Rolls-Royce, you don’t feel the road so much. With the Erard you get a much better feel of the ‘driving’ itself, of the road beneath you. But indeed, it can be very comfortable and comforting to have a Steinway. It offers great support. On the other hand, an old instrument sounds more transparent, and as a singer you’re a bit more exposed in a certain way. However, I think this is a good thing, I like it.”

“But apart from the choice of piano, there is always the dialogue between pianist and singer. Not only in performing the songs on stage, but also in discussing the response to the music and text. I always try to be very much attuned to what exactly the pianist is trying to do, by listening and by evaluating.”

“It’s very wise to treat this music as chamber music. To me, Schubert’s songs are in the world of his sonatas, where Schumann’s lieder have their roots not only in his piano solo pieces, but also in his trios, quartets and quintet. Working with Kristian brings that whole world within reach. It is that broader picture that I embrace. It may not be the world of the dominating star singer, but that is something I have no interest in anyway.”

Full Cycle

I still remember the days when song cycles were hardly ever performed in their entirety. Instead, we were presented with snapshots, the choice being with the singer. Today we might say we’re spoiled, with all these full-length performances of song cycle s auch as Die Schöne Müllerin, Die Winterreise and Dichterliebe, and even of Schwanengesang (which originally was not a cycle at all: Schubert’s brother and his publisher subsequently made it so).

Mark: “I think it was Julius Christian Stockhausen who was the first singer to perform a whole cycle in public in the 1860s. That must have been a courageous enterprise, because at that time even Schubert’s piano sonatas had fallen into oblivion. After having performed so many song cycles, I must emphasize that no individual song can deliver the same impact on its own as it can as when it is performed as part of a whole work. There may be exceptions, but definitely not with cycles such as Müllerin and Winterreise.”

A Bitter Tone

We might say that Winterreise is a gloomy work, but that Schumann’s Dichterliebe is much less in that vein. Do you feel Schumann’s later mental darkness in this song cycle already?

Mark: “You can see from his choice of poems that his attitude to love is not exactly an optimistic one. The poetry is very bitter. I’m sure that the various crises and disappointments in his life played out in both, Liederkreis and Dichterliebe. There are those images of struggle, and that things go terribly wrong. This music conveys premonitions of tragedy, together with the prospect of depression. In terms of musical greatness, 1840 was an incredible year for Schumann.”

And for us as well. It might be added that to Schumann the poetry of Heine and Eichendorff opened up musical paths to all the romantic emotions from that period. There were these heartfelt images of wandering, nature, lost love, longing, regret and sorrow. Every contemporary musician should find his dictum to put the words and music in a present-day perspective as well.

About Imitation and Limitation

Mark: “There has always been the tendency not to bring individual variety to the songs, in the sense of their strong variety in terms of text and musical scope, but to imitate other interpreters. There is imitation, no question about it. I, for myself, vividly remember an early lesson. I think it was when recording the Weihnachtsoratorium with Harry Christophers. It happened to be one of the first major records I took part in. When listening to the playbacks, I felt very disappointed at what I sounded like. I suddenly realised that I sounded like Anthony Rolfe-Johnson. It was his sound I had aimed at that, without realizing what I was doing. Later, I reached the point in my career at which I loved my own sound, although I know my limitations and still need to take lessons to improve what I’m doing.”

Where are your limitations?


“In my range of colours. So I don’t sing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner. That’s to say that when it gets to the more heroic roles, I feel I have a slightly more restricted palette. But there are many other things I can do. What I’m consistently after is not highlighting my role as a singer, but rather the repertoire. People should be allowed to listen to the song, not the singer.”

Musical Depth

What about the connotation of musical depth in symphonies, concertos and chamber music?

Kristian: “When composers wrote at the end of eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, they had specific goals in mind. They wrote their symphonies and piano concertos in the full understanding that they needed to satisfy a very strong public objective, where chamber music, by its nature, is much more intimate and private.”

Mark: “The big repertoire, such as symphonies and concertos, complied with public standards. Composers tried to reach many people at one time, so things had to be done in bolder lines, and with bolder, stronger ideas as well. This is music that simply tells you what is going on. When you get to chamber music repertoire, there is more out there to discover, as is the case with literature. There are authors who are very good at story-telling, in a very clear fashion, while at the same time there are also books you have to work your own way out of. With the chamber repertoire it is like reading poetry, trying to make sense of things, of complex arguments, context, syntax, etc. More often than not, you need to go back to previous lines before the next one makes sense.”

“As a singer I enjoy the incredible range of the lied repertoire. The nineteenth century alone has so much to offer, by Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. It takes a great deal of time to discover this music. It is really not a matter of singing the notes of, say, Die Winterreise, and thinking you’re there. I remember when I first performed Winterreise; I really wished I had already performed it twenty times. It is longer than any symphony from that period. Dichterliebe itself is a small song cycle by comparison, but it still takes about thirty minutes, the length of a symphony. And there is no patchwork here.”

King Lear and Hamlet

“To me, Winterreise is like the St. Matthew Passion, but also King Lear. It has that status. The Müllerin is quite different, of course, it’s more like Hamlet. Winterreise has that daring outlook on the world as really it is, often cruel and lonely. At the same time, it’s the story of an outsider, something of a Samuel Beckett character, somebody standing outside life and realising that he needs to carry on in the face of all of the world’s misery. And he rejects all things bourgeois or Biedermeier, the comfortable setting of it all.”


What about recording? It seems to be an art in itself.

Mark: “Even without an audience, we can explore the depths of the music and be imaginative, above all because it clicks between the two of us. And with these Schumann works it was no problem whatsoever. It went very well and straight from the very beginning because we already knew the repertoire well prior to recording it. We were just there to make music together and I think it worked fine.”

Kristian: “We went through many takes without ever feeling stressed. The atmosphere was very relaxed, and there was ample time to try things out before settling for what we thought was right. Just a few people involved, no hassle, nothing to be distracted by.”


Why Lachner is in their repertoire?

Mark: “Franz Lachner was born in 1803 and therefore a contemporary of both Schubert and Schumann. Apart from that, we opted for texts by Heine, as with Schumann's Dichterliebe and Liederkreis. Compared to these two great masters, I can only say that his lieder stand up very well. They may not be on the very same level, but Lachner’s individual voice needs to be heard as well. His songs are well-designed, and Fischermädchen, for example, is most touching. Sometimes there is that gothic and dramatic bang of Schubert’s Erlkönig in his songs. And not to forget those Heine texts!”

You’re also performing Liederkreis Op 24, Schumann’s song cycle which is also on texts by Heinrich Heine. There is another Liederkreis by Schumann, his Op 39, on texts by Joseph von Eichendorff. In 1847 in Vienna, the great poet told Clara Schumann that Robert’s music had truly brought his words to life. As if only musical meaning could deliver the full impact of the poetry.

Mark: “I didn’t realise that, but it just confirms the points I have made.”

Aart van der Wal / © 2010


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