Magical music-making from Padmore and Biss at Milton Court

‘Glorious and emblazoned in their gentlest blood marriage, they stand there before us, the gentlest of all arts, the art of poetry and the art of music.’  Robert Schumann’s essay, ‘Über die innige Verwandtschaft der Poesie und der Tonkunst’ (About the intimate kinship of poetry and the art of music), written during his schooldays in 1826, is a potent expression of what the composer later sought to achieve in the 140 or so songs composed during the Liederjahr of 1840, and in the 100 more that followed when he returned to the genre in 1849.  That ‘gentlest marriage’ was beautifully realised by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Jonathan Biss at Milton Court Concert Hall, in a performance of astonishing insight and artistry.

Often one reflects on whether and how the authenticity and clarity of a singer’s diction shapes a song’s meaning and reception.  Here, though, it wasn’t just that Padmore enunciated the German text with such naturalness that the music really spoke, what was truly remarkable was the way the words and the melody seemed one and the same.  Moreover, Padmore and Biss seemed to perform within an intermedial space in which poetry and music could not be separated, the voice and piano expressing the same feelings through different semantic systems, the piano complementing, commenting and creating new meanings.

Liederkreis Op.24, which sets nine poems by Heinrich Heine, immediately drew us into this intermedial zone, the piano’s light-footed tread seeming to begin in medias res, emphasising the futile repetition implicit in the opening line, “Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage” (Each morning I get up and ask: will my sweetheart come today?)   Heine’s poems often seep sarcasm, and at the close of ‘Es treibt mich hin, es treibt mich her!’ (I am driven to and fro!) the spiteful mockery of the hours that crawl and shuffle was apparent in the contrast between the waning acknowledgement that those hours can never have loved and the subsequent loud rebuking of their cruelty to impatient lovers.  The layered personae of ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen” (I wandered beneath the trees) were embodied with equal impact by the text, Padmore’s timbre and the piano’s harmonic colours – a wonderful expressive synesthesia.  The ever so slightly delayed resolution at the end of the piano postlude poignantly captured the poet-speaker’s Weltschmerz.

Biss’s off-beat quavers in ‘Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Händchen aufs Herze mein’ (Dearest sweetheart, lay your hand on my heart’) were a weightless whisper but – as their very evenness and lightness opposed a sense of ‘pulse’ – they absolutely conjured the destabilisation of ‘self’ caused by the poet-speaker’s pounding heart.  Then, feeling flooded through ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Lieder’ (Fair cradle of my sorrows), Biss’s warm, deep textures cushioning Padmore’s gentle vocal line; when the latter was infused by angry regret, the tenor did not push too hard through the phrases and the overall effect was one of listless resignation, the crunching accents of the piano’s after-thoughts conveying the pain left unspoken.  ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffsmann’ (Wait, wait, rough sailor) was more assertive, impatient even, which heightened the expressive power of the rhythmic lag of the syncopated vocal line – “Ei, mein Lieb, warum just heute/ Schauderst du, mein Blut zu sehn?” (My love, why just today do you recoil at the sight of my blood?) – making palpable the pain of the poet’s bleeding heart.

Jonathan Biss (image courtesy of IMG Artists)

Padmore’s soft sweetness made ‘Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter’ (Mountains and castles gaze down) an escapist dream, the narrow range of the vocal line seeming to confirm the poet-speaker’s self-absorption.  The duo relished Heine’s remarkable expressive economy in the following song, which consists of a single quatrain:

Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen,
Und ich glaubt’, ich trüg es nie:
Und ich hab’ es doch getragen –
Aber fragt ich nur nicht, wie?

(At first I almost despaired,/ thinking I could never bear it./ Yet borne it I have,/ but do not ask me how.)

Hymnic resignation was infused with a slight intensity which diffused with the voice’s soul-weary closing repetition, “nicht, wie?”  The unanswerable question was pushed aside by ‘Mit Myrten und Rosen’, once again the piano’s off-beats and syncopations destroying any hope that peace could be found other than in the grave.  But, at the close there was comfort in delusion, Padmore’s head voice conveying the frailty of the poet-speaker’s self-reassurance that his beloved will indeed hear the ‘melancholy breath of love’ carried by his songs.

Composed in 1850, Schumann’s Sechs Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau und Requiem Op.90 are less well-known and have a strange history, Schumann having added the final elegy to his original Lenau settings in the mistaken belief that Lenau had died, only to learn, the day after the first performance of the songs at a private gathering, that the poet had in fact died.  ‘Lied eines Schmiedes’ was broad and bold and segued into ‘Meine Rose’ in which the poet’s address to the rose – “meiner Freude”, “meines Herzens!” – was almost unbearably tender, Padmore’s falling duplets so soft against the piano’s light triplets.

Biss’s introductory trickles in ‘Einsamkeit’ (Solitude) had a Brahmsian clarity while Padmore’s subdued but focused interiority relaxed only when the alienated poet-speaker consoled himself that, deep in the woods, the spirit of love heard his song – “Der dich höret und versteht,/ Stille hier der Geist der Liebe” – the arching phrase suffused for just an instant with belief and peace.  The cross-rhythms and fragmentation of ‘Der Schwere Abend’ (The oppressive evening) disrupted and unsettled, culminating in the poet’s agonised admission, “Wünscht’ ich bekümmert beiden/ Im Herzen uns den Tod” (I wished us both dead in the sadness of my heart), anguish flooding through the piano postlude.  And, in the final ‘Requiem’, the freedom of the piano’s semiquavers and the directness of the vocal line did indeed to intimate a release to be found in the afterlife.

After the interval, Padmore and Biss returned to 1840, and the full 20-song version of Dichterliebe Op.48Sending his newly completed cycle, which distils the embittered frustration of Heine’s longer set of poems, to his wife, Clara, on 16th February 1840, Schumann wrote: ‘Here, my Clara, I’m enclosing a liedchen for you; I’ve just made it.  First read the text well and then think of your Robert.’  Poetry first, then music, then the oneness of art and love.  Hearing the crystalline lucidity of the piano’s dreamy meanderings at the opening of ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ (In the lovely month of May) was like slipping through cool water, back to the past, and the whole cycle had the sensory intensity of a memory recalled and relived.  There was no detail that was not considered, crafted and communicated with exquisite sensitivity and touching expressiveness.  Just as the harmonic indeterminacy of the opening song blurred past and present, so the nuanced heightening of the voice’s confession of longing and desire (“Sehnen und Verlangen”) at the close of that song truly tugged the heart.

The protagonist’s voice is so strong in this cycle, and here we were drawn into the embrace of a vast gamut of emotions remembered and experienced.  The hesitant honesty with which the poet-speaker bares his soul to his beloved in ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen’ was followed by a rush of headstrong passion in ‘Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne’, which calmed in ‘Wenn in deine Augen seh’’ into strength and wholeness: “Doch wenn ich küße deinen Mund,/ So werd’ ich ganz und gar gesund.” (But when I kiss your lips/ then I become whole and healthy.)   The piano was softly pensive in the less frequently heard ‘Dein Angesicht’, Padmore’s vocal line lyrical, sweet and even, while the gathering urgency of the postlude dissipated into silence with unsettling suddenness.  The vigour of ‘Lehn deine Wang’ an meine Wang’’ was quietened by the ecstatic imaginings of ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’, Padmore’s tenor floating ethereally as the poet-speaker imagined his soul plunging into the cup of a lily that sang, with trembling sweetness, of his beloved. 

‘Ich grolle nicht’ began with steady resignation but Biss’s low growl grew ever more angry and the image of the serpent gnawing at the beloved’s heart rang with terror.  The trauma intensified in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen’, the flutes, fiddles and trumpets making a dark, almost deranged music, but in ‘Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’ Biss’s left hand retreated into the shadows and the piano’s rhythmic freedom captured the restless grief of the poet.  Padmore seemed to fling his account of his beloved’s marriage to another (Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen) directly at the audience, gesturing with his hands, as if we were to blame for the betrayal.  At the close of ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’, once again Biss use Schumann’s shifting harmonies to capture the psychological imbalance of the lover who hears the flowers whispering warnings full of pity.

‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ was simply wonderful, Padmore’s unaccompanied voice, juxtaposed with the sweet liquidity of the piano’s conclusion to the preceding song, seeming both vulnerable and determined – sometimes almost speech-like, then warmed with lyrical strength by a dream in which his lover is still his.  More dreams followed, of the beloved and of lands of bliss, but these dreams can have only one destination, and in ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ they were buried, along with the poet’s pain and love.  Without undue rhetoric, Padmore and Biss communicated the suicidal heaviness which drags the poet down into eternal darkness.  In the final stanza, Padmore again addressed us directly, “Wißt ihr, warum der Sarg wohl/ So groß und schwer mag sein?” (Do you know why the coffin must be so big and heavy?).  Biss’s limpid postlude carried the poet elsewhere.

In an early poem ‘Prologue’ (1826), the young Schumann reflected on a hierarchy of art, but the penultimate stanza strives for synthesis.  ‘The arts must embrace each other lovingly’, he wrote.  Padmore and Biss showed us how.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Jonathan Biss (piano)

Schumann: Liederkreis Op.24, Sechs Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau und Requiem Op.90, Dichterliebe Op.48

Milton Court Concert Hall, London; Monday 29th November 2021.

ABOVE: Mark Padmore (c) Marco Borggreve