Mark Padmore on festivals, lieder and musical conversations

Regional music and arts festivals continue to proliferate, so I ask Padmore
what it is that makes the four-day festival at Tetbury distinctive, and
rewarding for a performer. He explains that he welcomes the opportunity to
perform in a beautiful venue, the Georgian Gothic Paris Church of St Mary
the Virgin whose magnificent spire dominates the town’s skyline: a venue
which, being outside the mainstream of music-making, does not bring with it
any particular expectations or conventions, and which will be filled with
those who are perhaps not regular concert-goers but are eager for new
musical experiences.

Alongside the festival’s four concerts, audiences can enjoy pre-concert
interviews and lectures, and prior to Padmore’s recital Dr Natasha Loges,
Assistant Head of Programmes at the Royal College of Music, will present a
lecture entitled ‘The Hidden Magic of Lieder’. I wonder whether the magic
of lieder is really ‘hidden’, and whether it’s especially important to
communicate this ‘magic’ to new audiences. Padmore considers that lieder
can sometimes be problematic for English audiences, partly because of the
language, and recognises the importance of performing in a venue where it’s
possible to reach the audience and communicate the meaning of what is often
complex poetry – performing Winterreise in the Barbican Hall would
be an odd experience, far removed from the context in which Schubert’s
cycle was first experienced. He notes that even at the Wigmore Hall, which
presents more lieder recitals than any other venue in the world, there
seems to be little overlap between those attending chamber music – string
quartet concerts, say – and those attending recitals of song; mixed
programmes comprising both chamber music and lieder have not always proved
popular with audiences.

Perhaps, he reflects, one of the challenges is that with lieder it’s not
the voice, or the singer, that is paramount, but the text; and it is not
just the voice that communicates that text but the piano also. Padmore
feels that this is particularly true in the case of Schumann, whoseDichterliebe he will sing at Tetbury. In Dichterliebe, it is often not the voice that is carrying the melody line –
conveying the composer’s messages to his beloved Clara – but the piano,
which often rises above the singer (who is essentially supplying the text)
and articulates its own arguments. Padmore suggests that there are places
where it would be possible, or inviting, to add text to the piano part:
that lieder is a ‘speaking art form’.

It is the tenor’s respect for and sensitivity to the text which make him
such a superb interpreter of the music of J.S. Bach, and his performances
as the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions so compelling – not least in Peter
Sellars’s staging, or ‘ritualisation’, of the St Matthew Passion
with the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle which was first seen in
2010 in Salzburg and Berlin and has acquired ‘legendary’ status. Padmore
will perform the St Matthew Passion at the Royal Festival Hall in
March next year, when he reunites with the Orchestra of the Age of
Enlightenment. I note that he is listed as both Evangelist and ‘director’,
but he explains that this denotes ‘musical’ director: he will lead
rehearsals, encouraging the performers to explore the work, to really
listen to each other, so that they can present the Passion without
a conductor. This is fundamental to Padmore’s understanding and experience
of the Passions. They are chamber music and it is essential that
performances are a three-way conversation – between the text, the
performers and the audience – in which all three participants are equally
engaged. It is not necessary – in fact it can be obstructive – to have a
conductor, serving as a source of ‘interpretation’; instead, the empty
space which a conductor would usually fill opens up a conduit of
communication so that the singers can convey the emotions of the text, and
the emotions they feel, directly to the listeners.

Padmore reflects that because the Passions are so well known we have become
somewhat inured to listening to Bach. We forget that it is religious music:
a recent encounter with a Bach chorus being pumped out as a sort of
ecclesiastical muzak in a parish church is one example he cites of its
‘misuse’. We consume the music passively and Padmore wants to break through
this passivity: to make the music dynamic and urgent, to make it mean
something to the audience, to make them experience the choral cry,
‘Barrabam!’, as a response to Peter’s denial. The word he returns to is
‘attentiveness’: performers and audiences should be attentive, at all
times. He comments that Sellars demanded attentiveness to the text at all
moments, even visiting the tenor in his dressing room before a performance
to talk through the text.

There will be more ‘story-telling’ when Padmore returns to Berlin this
season, as Artist in Residence with the Berlin Philharmonic. He will
perform Haydn’s Creation in the opening concert of the season and,
subsequently, Robert Schumann’s secular oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri, as well as chamber music concerts with
members of the Berlin Philharmonic and students of the Karajan Academy.
This follows Padmore’s residency with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
last season and the tenor clearly relishes the opportunity to form a
‘proper relationship’ with an orchestra. He knows the Berliners well and is
looking forward to meeting, working and building relationships with the
players, developing a communal expression and aiming for performances that
are rooted in how we communicate. He will feel ‘at home’; something that,
he reflects ruefully, the international system – and perhaps celebrity and
success – doesn’t really allow.

Padmore’s season will also include some new compositions. Marking the
London Sinfonietta’s 50th anniversary, in June next year the
tenor will perform a new chamber piece by Tansy Davies, Cave,
written in collaboration with librettist Nick Drake following their 2015
opera Between Worlds. Then, he will take part in a new opera by
Thomas Larcher, whose A Padmore Cycle – settings of poems by Hans
Aschenwald and Alois Hotschnig – was written for the tenor in 2011.

His performances in Glyndebourne’s 2013 Billy Budd and in George
Benjamin’s Written on Skin at the ROH earlier this year were
highly acclaimed, and I ask Padmore, such a powerful ‘story-teller’, why he
hasn’t been a more frequent visitor to the operatic stage. He explains
that, while he loves theatre, he does not feel that there are a lot of
roles which are ideal for his voice – before pre-empting my next question
by commenting that Aschenbach, in Britten’s Death in Venice is on
the horizon! Jan·?ek’s operas are also appealing …

But, before that there is Schubert and Schumann.
Audiences in Tetbury, Norwich, Oxford, and overseas can anticipate some
compelling musical conversations.

Tetbury Music Festival

runs from 28th September to 1st October.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Mark Padmore in conversation
product_title=Mark Padmore in conversation
product_by=An interview with Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Mark Padmore

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve