Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Lewis (piano), Songs by Schumann, Brahms, Schubert and Wolf, Chan Centre, April 10, 2016.

Pianist Paul Lewis has regularly appeared with the Vancouver Recital Society for more than a decade but this is the first time we have seen him with tenor Mark Padmore.  Judging from the glowing reviews in England, theirs is becoming a truly exalted partnership, and this deliciously varied recital of Schumann and Brahms settings of Heine, and Schubert and Wolf settings of Goethe, could only reinforce this viewpoint.  This is the same recital that was performed at Wigmore Hall in January 2016.  

Many have been impressed with the Schubert song cycles that the duo recorded a few years ago for Harmonia Mundi but, now in their fourth year together, there is perhaps an even greater ‘fineness’ in detailing and dynamics between them, a longer vision, and an even stronger natural synergy.  For those who like a large voice in this repertoire, the fact remains that Padmore is a light lyric tenor, with the emphasis on the ‘light’. Nor does he bring out the text with the extreme point and dramatic emphasis that his counterpart Ian Bostridge does. For some, this might suggest a certain pallour in expression. Yet the tenor fits remarkably well within a British tradition that one might date from Peter Pears, carrying on through Anthony Rolph Johnson and Philip Langridge. While focusing his emotional range within narrower extremes than Bostridge, Padmore’s direct, wonderfully clean perception of the text, and his refined and subtle vocal control, has its own unique enrichment. Combine this with Paul Lewis’ own sensitivity and musical instinct, and one now observes an almost perfect balance of text-driven and music-driven song, all put together with great thought but without out a trace of self-consciousness. Padmore’s penetration of the softer, ethereal moments – where he moves seamlessly into his ‘white’ tone – can be lovely indeed, and he appears to unearth a very pure form of tenderness and intimacy each time.  

The opening Schumann  Liederkreis (Op. 24) embodies natural tensions between Florestan and Eusebius but this performance also revealed just how much the two artists now succeed in making each song’s motion and feeling unique.  Some singers and pianists might gravitate to the same characterization for similar feelings in different texts, but I felt almost none of that here.  Padmore’s distilled sensitivity of expression always found subtly different shadings to put with Lewis’ cunning sense of motion and texture.  Starting from a beautifully pure rendering of ‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage’ (Every morning I wake and ask), ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’ (I wandered among the trees) really emerged as riveting in its sense of contemplation and restrained intimacy.  A different consuming flow informed the next peak, ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’ (Lovely cradle of my sorrows), and who could not respond to the moments of lyrical ease in between and after, especially in ‘Berg und Burgen schaun herunter’ (Mountains and castles look down), with its lovely long lines and tenderness. The involved declamatory tones of ‘Warte, warte wilder Schiffmann’ (Wait, O wait, wild sailor) were delivered with clean strength, and cut like a knife, contrasting with the later pianissimo tones of ‘Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I only lost my heart). The layers of expression and precision that Paul Lewis put under this were revealing.

The Brahms’ songs involve riper expression and, again, while one might welcome a more fulsome voice, everything seemed engaging because Lewis artfully scaled down the weight of his expression to match the singer.  One certainly noticed Padmore’s control of line and texture, and his ability to spin out a most refined beauty, in the lovely ‘Sommerabend’ (Summer evening) and’ Mondenschein’ (Moonlight), yet the storminess of ‘Meerfahrt’ (Sea voyage) was fully caught, with a fine sense of resolution too. Subtle control of dynamics was again apparent in ‘Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht’ Death is cool night), the singer pushing out beautifully to the louder reaches.

The Schubert settings of Goethe are relatively early songs but they introduce the ‘wandering spirit’ that the composer would amplify in ever more forbidding and downtrodden ways in his later masterpieces.  These songs fit the artists' sensitivities perfectly. The tenor consistently displayed sterling insight in his phrase shapes, and beguiling tenderness in his long lines, while the pianist cast a Schubertian spell over many of the proceedings, especially the softer ones.  One striking example was ‘Wer sich der Einsamkelt ergibt’ (Who gives himself to loneliness), where Padmore showed incredible ability to vary his tempo while sustaining a long legato line, and both artists put a real stamp of magic on the quiet ending.  At the same time, it would be difficult to think of a greater sense of stillness than that found in ‘Meeres Stille’ (Calm sea) – distilled, perfectly quiet and almost completely motionless.  But let us not forget ‘An Schwager Kronos’ (To coachman Kronos): a miracle of precision, resilient strength and unbridled motion.  The timing and articulation between the two was so fine here: Padmore’ articulation clean but also commanding, and Lewis almost outdid himself in his buoyant abandon.  

The Wolf songs were a nice foil to the Schubert, opening up more possibilities for Padmore to be an ardent story-teller in the four ‘drunken’ songs.  These he brought off engagingly, with strong characterization and animation, but the middle three songs also left their mark: the delicacy of ‘Gleich und Gleich’ (Like to like), the sensuality in ‘Phänomen’ (Phenomenon), and the lovely suspension of line in ‘Anakreons Grab’ (Anacreon’s Grave).

This was an absolutely fine recital. What impressed me most was how these two artists immediately managed to take us into their own personal world and suspend us there.  One forgot about other singers, other interpretations, and simply followed them in their explorations.  Unlike much text-driven lieder, one thought as much about the beauty of the music as the ardour of the text, just as one thought as much about of the artistry of Paul Lewis as that of Mark Padmore.  And it all seemed so intelligent, yet unassuming and modest.  The interpretations were vocally etched more in fine silver than in gold, but it was their compelling consistency, sensitivity and depth that made it all add up to something very special and whole.

© Geoffrey Newman 2016