‘In my end is my beginning’: Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

For, this series of 20 lunchtime recitals, live streamed via the Wigmore Hall
website and broadcast on BBC Radio 3, has been very much more than a ‘good
thing’: the performances have not ‘just’ been an opportunity to enjoy
remarkable music and musicianship, technical mastery and expressive
commitment, but also astonishingly, though not surprisingly, fulfilling and
uplifting, and perhaps ground-breaking too.

And, as Artistic Director,

John Gilhooly, reassures us
, although Wigmore Hall will fall silent for a few months – to allow a
clearer picture to emerge as to how long this crisis will continue for live
performance, and for musicians, and decisions about the autumn and winter
programmes can be taken – the doors of Wigmore Hall will re-open
and welcome audiences back for live performances.

This recital by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Mitsuko Uchida was, though,
the final concert in this wonderful series, so it was ‘an end’ of sorts.
Schubert’s Winterreise is also a journey towards an ‘end’ – rest,
death, the abyss, perhaps renewal. Initially, though any opportunity to
hear these two musicians perform Schubert’s song-cycle is always to be
grasped, I wondered if the programming was not a little too bleak: hope
rather despair, resurrection rather than oblivion, is what we long for and
need. Moreover, listening at mid-day at the peak of a mini midsummer
heatwave didn’t seem the most helpful circumstances in which to empathise
with the chilling introspection of the traveller’s winter journey across
the icy landscape, into his own psyche and beyond into nothingness.

But, I need not have feared. The soft and surreptitious tread of the piano
at the start of ‘Gute Nacht’ – Uchida somehow managed to convey the
slightest of propulsive swellings through the first two bars of piano breathing – was both an ending and a beginning: a gentle
farewell to the present and the commencement of a journey through an
emotional terrain, ever more extreme. That’s not to suggest that there was
anything overly mannered about Padmore’s and Uchida’s approach. Quite the
opposite. And, it was that very clarity and directness, judgement and
sensitivity, that made their performance so powerful, almost overwhelmingly
so, given the context. The empty seats in the Hall, the wanderer’s
isolation and alienation, the cycle’s movement towards an existential void:
the nothingness accrued with terrible inevitability, a terrifying echo of
the cultural vacuum that occasionally casts an grim shadow on the nation’s
horizon, despite Gilhooly’s confidence that the arts, which “are central to
the international standing, character and wellbeing of the nation” will,
play “a huge role in our national recovery”.

Padmore and Uchida brought every quality of their musicianship that we know
and love, to bear upon this music. Padmore’s tenor, ever sweet, with an
occasional slightness or strain at the top poignantly emphasising the
protagonist’s physical and mental struggle, enunciated and inflected
Wilhelm M¸ller’s poems with meticulous precision and perceptiveness.
Uchida’s playing was thoughtful and unrushed, the elegant clarity of her
playing enabling her to paint crystalline images and imagery.

There was so much to admire and which intrigued, so much detail which
compelled, and so many aspects of this performance that were deeply moving,
that it is almost impossible to know where to begin, or what to select, and
what to omit. There was Padmore’s beautiful legato and tapered phrasing in
‘Gute Nacht’, and the sudden forcefulness and anger at the start of the
third stanza which then diminished into the lingering softness of the final
major-key stanza which acquired a patina of even deeper sadness from such
contrast; and, a similarly dramatic and restless contrast of floating leise and assertive laute in ‘Die Wetterfahne’, and the
leanness of Uchida’s textures – the snatching away of the final trill felt
cruel and hard. Fire and ice were similarly, via a wonderfully expressive
rubato, counterposed in ‘Gefrorne Tr‰nen’, but always the momentum was
onwards, unstoppable, frightening.

‘Erstarrung’ swirled with a torment born on the wind and through the soul:
I think I held my breath from start to finish. With ‘Die Lindenbaum’ we
entered a consoling vision, the fragile unreality of which was pointed by
Uchida’s soft steel-edged interjections, and which was swept aside with
terrifying brusqueness by the blast which blows the hat from the wanderer’s
head, leaving just a tantalising, teasing dream of what might have been. I
don’t think I’ve ever heard such a unity of longing and frustration, pain
and fury, flood through the final phrase of ‘Wasserflut’: “Da ist meiner
Leibsten Haus.” Similarly, Uchida’s wonderfully/terribly dry staccato in
‘Auf dem Flusse’ made the musical imagery of the swelling under the crust
of ice that coats the river – as the voice releases its fears, supported by
the rich piano bass, now released from its fetters – almost impossible to

With ‘Irrlicht’ – snatched fragments, poignant octaves, richer indulgences
– the disintegration of the protagonist’s wholeness seemed to begin. Have
the cocks and ravens that disrupt the dreams of spring ever felt more
devilish? Or the whispered, silken retreat to a fantasy of love’s renewal
more beguilingly dangerous? The daring temporal freedom in ‘Einsamkeit’
pressed home the self-destructive emotional excess which the wanderer
bears; in ‘Der greise Kopf’, wisdom and wistfulness only just repressed
upswells of painful emotion, and the darkness lingered in the uncomfortable
shadows of the low-lying ‘Die Kr‰he’.

Padmore did, entirely forgivably, tire a little, and some of the latter
songs were a touch less ‘accurate’, but this often lent them a
vulnerability that was deeply affecting: in the face of the crisp rattles
and barks of ‘Im Dorfe’, the protagonist’s dismissal of the dogs’ warning,
and of the invitation to dream, seemed all the more dangerous. What did not
ever lessen was Padmore’s acuity with regard to verbal weight and meaning:
there was a heart-wrenching moment of self-awareness in ‘T‰uschung’ when
the wanderer recognises and condemns his own susceptibility to dreams and
hope – this seemed to propel us into the abyss. ‘Das Wirthaus’ is marked sehr langsam and Uchida played the piano introduction as if she
could not take a single step further – I could feel the suffocating weight
on my own shoulders – and then through the burden floated the blanched but
ever sweet vocal line, condemning the signs that invite travellers into
cool inn.

In ‘Mut’, Padmore seemed to push forward more than Uchida expected, and now
it was the pianist who seemed a little weary, though this only added to the
verisimilitude. I shut my eyes during ‘Die Nebensonnen’, always the most
wonderful moment of transfiguration. And, then, only the hurdy-gurdy man
stood between us and nothingness. Has the imagery of ‘Der Leiermann’ every
seemed more apt or painful? – “with numb fingers he grinds away as best he
can”, “barefoot on the ice … his little plate remains always empty”,
“No-one wants to hear him, no-one looks at him … the dogs growl”.

For the first time in this series, the silence after the music had
dissolved into the void was truly appropriate and profound. But, the end of
‘Der Leiermann’ seems to beckon us into a journey of renewal, “Shall I go
with you? … Will you, to my songs, play your hurdy-gurdy?” asks the
exhausted wanderer. Are we propelled back to the opening of ‘Gute Nacht’, in media res? Perhaps the piano’s relentless steps have never
stopped – so out of the void will come music? The hurdy-gurdy man’s abyss
may at first seem an alarming metaphor for the imminent silencing of the
nation’s cultural life, but perhaps his music is infinite?

Padmore himself, in his opening remarks, reminded us of Brecht’s motto to
his Svendborg Poems (1939):

In the dark times

Will there also be singing?

Yes, there will also be singing

About the dark times.

And in an essay, ‘Undefeated Despair’, written in 2006 in response to the
growing crisis in Palestine, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear,
without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ As the lights go
out at Wigmore Hall for an unknowable length of time, let us hope, and be
certain, that the bright times, and the singing about them, will return to
our lives soon.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Franz Schubert – Winterreise D911

Wigmore Hall, London; Friday 26th June 2020.

product_title=Winterreise, Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Mitsuko Uchida and Mark Padmore

Photo courtesy of Wigmore Hall