Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall

Such thoughts were in my mind at the start of this recital by tenor Mark
Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida. As the musicians walked onto the
Wigmore Hall platform and an expectant hush descended, I felt a wonderful
sense of anticipation tinged with tension: the journey through the
twenty-four songs of Winterreise is so familiar, and yet if, at
the start of a performance, we know where we are heading we have no idea of
how we are going to get there. Nor, paradoxically, what – emotionally,
psychologically – our final destination will be.

On this occasion, it was not a journey during which we were buffeted by icy
blasts which blew the hats from our heads. The rustling branches, raging
streams, rattling chains and barking dogs were finely etched but seemed to
herald from a world at one remove – a distant dreamscape into which Padmore
and Uchida gently but irresistibly pulled us. As the embracing chill
deepened and the wanderer’s tears froze upon the cold flakes of snow, we
seemed to be travelling ever deeper into an ‘interior’ landscape of
detachment and emptiness: time slowed, movement stilled, the ‘real’ world
dissipated into imaginative introspection. When Padmore’s wanderer was
lured by the will-o’-the-wisp into the deep rocky chasm, his indifference –
‘How to find a way out does not greatly concern me. I’m used to going
astray’ (‘Wie ich einen Ausgang finder,/ Liegt nicht schwer mir in dem
Sinn./Bin gewohnt das irregehen’) – was dangerously tempting and
undeniable. After all, he sang, ‘Every path leads to one goal’ (’S f¸rht ja
jeder Weg zum Ziel’).

Padmore and Uchida were perfect partners, as they coaxed us into an
alienation which seemed to be quietly accepted rather than angrily
resisted. Both perform with a delicacy and care that is underpinned by a
core of steel. Padmore’s vocal control – the evenness of line and colour,
the immaculate phrasing, the meticulous articulation of the text – was
complemented by Uchida’s crystalline sculpting of the wintry mind-scape.

Indeed, at times the piano seemed to be bearing the emotional weight of the
cycle, particularly as Padmore’s tenor became more withdrawn, almost
blanched in the later songs. His soft head voice had an almost hypnotic
beauty, beguiling us into the bewildered isolation of ‘Erstarrung’
(Numbness) – ‘Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find a green
grass?’ (‘Wo find’ ich eine Bl¸te,/Wo find’ ich gr¸nes Gras?’) – and making
us feel both the pain of perplexed wretchedness in ‘Einsmakeit’
(Loneliness) and the comfort of a dream’s sanctuary in ‘Fr¸hlingstraum’
(Dream of Spring). There was contrast, creating a sense of progression,
between the shapely legato of the young man’s farewells to his ‘sweetest
love’ in the opening song, and the shrouded pianissimos of the later songs.
In ‘T‰uschung’ (Delusion), Padmore’s ghostly tenor conjured a disturbing
terror as the wanderer is lured from the path by the ‘garish guile’ of a
dancing light which promises friendship and warmth beyond the ice and

But, there were moments where I missed vocal weight, particularly in the
lower range, and variety of tone: in ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) where
the plunging vocal leaps and dark descent convey the wanderer’s submission
to sorrow; in the desperate plea – ‘O crow, let me at last see faithfulness
unto death!’ (Kr‰he, lass mich endliich she/Treue bis zum Grabe!’) at the
close of ‘Die Kr‰he’.

Uchida synthesised the musical architecture and emotional trajectory,
demonstrating a remarkable insight into the structural coherence of
Schubert’s cycle, articulating the expressive details with wonderful
judiciousness. The opening chords of ‘Gute Nacht’ were paradoxically both
reticent and resolute, becoming almost imperceptibly more firm as the
wanderer’s resolve hardens, pausing for the barest moment before the final
stanza, where a prevailing tension in the piano’s tread, underlined by
Padmore’s vocal intensification in the closing line, belied the deceptive
shift to the major mode.

The limpidity of Uchida’s delineation of the frozen tears of ‘Gefrorne
Tr‰he’; the coolness of the dark meandering at the start of ‘Erstarrung’;
the perfectly judged triplets of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ intimating the murmuring
currents beneath the stream’s silent surface; the incontestable blast at
the opening of ‘R¸ckblick’ (A backward glance) which pushed the wanderer
ever onwards: such masterful musical story-telling was both astonishing and
utterly absorbing. In ‘Der Lindenbaum’ (The linden tree), the delicate
breeze which nudged the branches at the start became a bitterer force at
the close, the piano’s taut dotted rhythms seeming to stab cruelly at the
wanderer in the final verse, taunting him with the promise of rest.
Contrastingly, there seemed to be no pulse at all in the first two bars of
‘Irrlicht’, as if the piano’s four-notes came from ‘elsewhere’, an
embodiment of the wander’s delusions.

The harmony of spirit between singer and pianist was compelling. In
‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), the rhythmic tension between voice and accompaniment
was sensitively controlled, and Padmore’s heightening of the repeated last
line of each stanza was underscored by the swelling of the piano’s richer
chords and Uchida’s expressive shaping of the return to the minor key.
‘Fr¸hlingstraum’ balanced frighteningly on the edge of an abyss, hovering
between reality and fantasy, pausing in silence when the screaming ravens
had woken the dreaming wanderer, before Uchida resumed the slow, rocking of
the dream-world for which he longs – the battle for mental stability subtly
but sharply dramatized in musical terms. The clarity of the interplay of
voice and piano in ‘Der Wegweiser’ (The Signpost) made the piano’s
left-hand ornaments speak eloquently beneath Padmore’s beautifully even
high line, Uchida retreating to a barely-there pianissimo in the final
verse as the wanderer gazes at the road he must travel and ‘from which no
man has ever returned’ (Die noch Keiner ging zur¸ck).

The performers’ vision cohered most powerfully in the final four songs. The
slow sombreness of ‘Das Wirthaus’ (The inn) was thrust aside by the
desperate wilfulness of ‘Muth’ (Courage), but it was the exquisite, gentle
warmth – almost shocking after the preceding unrelenting coldness – of
Uchida’s introductory phrase in ‘Die Nebensonnen’ (Phantom song) that was
so striking; as was the way the yearning of the vocal line faded to quiet
hopelessness, as the piano’s attempted assertiveness slipped into
resignation. When Padmore asked the cycle’s final question, ‘Will you grind
your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?’, slight warmth adding urgent need to the
rising plea, Uchida’s reply – strong at first, then diminishing into
silence – seemed to suggest that this wanderer would indeed find his peace

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Schubert: Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 11th December 2017.

image_description=Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall
product_title=Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida at the Wigmore Hall
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Mark Padmore

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve