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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Mark Padmore (tenor); Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. November, December 2008, Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London. DDD
German texts and English and French translations included.
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907484 [74:18]
Experience Classicsonline

In July 2008 Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis gave an extremely fine performance of Winterreise at the Cheltenham International Festival, which I reviewed for MusicWeb International. At the end of my review I commented that both artists record for the Harmonia Mundi label and I expressed the hope that they might be able to take their interpretation into the recording studio. Well, there’s good news - and even better news. The good news is that their recording of Winterreise is with us now. The even better news is that recordings of Die Schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang are planned.

Listening to this new recording, made under studio conditions, has been a very rewarding experience, albeit a different one from the concert performance. Heard live, the performance had the thrill, the electricity, of a reading caught on the wing. You can’t quite replicate that under studio conditions, though I’d suggest that this performance comes pretty close. The other feature of the concert performance was the cumulative build up of tension. I feared that quality might be less evident in a studio reading but, in fact, I find that Padmore and Lewis sustain and build up the atmosphere very successfully on this CD. Winterreise is a journey, a cumulative experience, and that’s how it comes across here.

Throughout the performance I enjoyed and admired the clarity of Mark Padmore’s singing; the unforced tone which, nonetheless, has a touch of steel to it when needed; his even tone production and his palpable involvement with the text - both the words and the music - without ever resorting to exaggeration. The top of his register - especially around top E to G - has a lovely clear ring to it. His phrasing is consistently intelligent, aided by fine breath control, and his German sounds completely convincing to me. When I listen to a performance such as his I realise that it’s the potential for youthful lightness of timbre above all that makes me prefer to hear Winterreise sung by a tenor. 

All that said, I do not mean in any way to diminish the scale of Mark Padmore’s achievement when I say that what marks out this recording as a special one is the partnership between singer and pianist. Just as Padmore brings his own insights to the music, so does Paul Lewis, not least through his wonderfully subtle touch and his seemingly effortless and natural use of rubato. But put the two together - a sensitive, intelligent singer and a pianist of equal quality - and you have something rather special.

I see, looking at my notes, that I’ve recorded some comment about something or other that I particularly relished against virtually every one of the twenty-four songs. That’s an indication that the interpretation is packed with details to savour. A few examples will suffice. In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ Lewis’s playing is most imaginative and, at the same time, attentive to Schubert’s markings. This is but one of many examples of his enviable pianistic touch. Padmore sings the song marvellously and I love the fire with which both performers invest the fifth stanza of the poem. ‘Irrlicht’ is a very difficult song for performers to “place” but this account is very successful due, I’m sure, to the rapport between Padmore and Lewis. Shortly afterwards, Lewis’s light, airy introduction to ‘Frühlingstraum’ sets the scene superbly for Padmore’s entry. Between them they give an expressive, varied reading of this song. 

Moving into Part Two of the cycle, the tension begins to mount in Schubert’s music and these artists respond instinctively and successfully. Both pianist and singer realise the spare textures of ‘Der greise Kopf’ very well indeed. One of the songs that I esteem most highly is ‘Das Wirtshaus’ and I really appreciated the grave weighting that Lewis achieves in the introduction - just as he did in the live performance - after which Padmore’s withdrawn tone, which is still full of expression, is just right. The penultimate song, ‘Die Nebensonnen’, occupies a mere two pages in the printed copy but in this short span Schubert music is as deeply moving as many works of much greater physical span. In fact the restraint of the setting gives it its depth. The performance here is as fine as you could wish to hear. I commented in the review of the Cheltenham performance that Lewis conveys the drone of the hurdy-gurdy perhaps better than any other pianist I’ve heard and he does so again here. He and Padmore give an eerie, withdrawn account of this strange and highly original song.

This compelling reading of Winterreise represents a very considerable achievement. Two very fine artists have come together and, it seems, have forged a genuine and deeply considered musical partnership. I still recall their live performance with a mixture of admiration and pleasure and I’m thrilled to have it replicated so successfully on this very fine CD. I should add that the recorded sound is first rate and Harmonia Mundi’s documentation is excellent.

There are many excellent versions of Schubert’s great song cycle in the catalogue but this is one that surely deserves to be ranked alongside the very best. All lovers of lieder should try to hear it. It’s a version to which I know I’ll return often in the future both for pleasure and as a benchmark and it’s made me impatient to hear Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis in Die Schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang.

John Quinn 

Masterwork Index: all reviews of Winterreise

Track listing
Gute Nacht [6:13]
Die Wetterfahne [1:48]
Gefror'ne Tränen [2:34]
Erstarrung [2:57]
Der Lindenbaum [4:56]
Wasserflut [4:16]
Auf dem Flusse [3:36]
Rückblick [2:08]
Irrlicht [2:44]
Rast [3:18]
Frühlingstraum [4:17]
Einsamkeit [2:49]
Die Post [2:10]
Der greise Kopf [3:07]
Die Kräh [2:03]
Letzte Hoffnung [2:01]
Im Dorfe [3:17]
Der stürmische Morgen [0:48]
Tauschung [1:24]
Der Wegwiser [4:26]
Das Wirtshaus [4:37]
Mut [1:25]
Die Nebensonnen [3:15]
Der Leiermann. [4:10]



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