The five concerts forming Mark Padmore’s 2022-23 residency at Wigmore Hall will be his last ‘full recitals’ at the Hall, though not necessarily his last appearances. The series focuses on the German lied, and sees Padmore performing programmes of songs by Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann with pianists Till Fellner, Mitsuko Uchida and Paul Lewis. However, this second concert in the series, in which the tenor was partnered by pianist Imogen Cooper, balanced the Germanic with the Gallic, songs by Schumann being complemented by settings of Paul Verlaine by Gabriel Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn.
Fauré’s La bonne chanson (1892-94) and two of the Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ (1891) framed five of the seven mélodies which form Hahn’s Chansons grises (1892), providing an opportunity to reflect upon the two composers’ different musical responses to particular poems by Verlaine. Hahn’s songs, which were composed as a composition exercise for Massenet when the teenage Hahn was studying at the Paris Conservatoire, seemed a particularly comfortable ‘fit’ for Padmore’s sweet, light tenor, their unaffected eloquence wonderfully revealed by Padmore’s characteristically sensitive interpretive insight.
A ‘salon intimacy’ was immediately established by the quiet intensity and directness of ‘Chanson d’automne’, Padmore’s tenor gently but affectionately caressing the delicate vocal line, Cooper exploiting the harmonic flutters to bring warmth to the spare accompaniment. The tenor’s discerning judgement of tone and weight touchingly conveyed the blend of fragility and hope born of memories of departed days. Floating expectantly above the piano’s soft cushion, the vocal line at the opening of ‘Tous deux’ seemed to anticipate the poet’s vision of the summer sky which, “tout bleu, comme une haute tente” (all blue, like a tall canopy), will quiver voluptuously above the happy lovers, and the closing image of peaceful stars smiling benevolently on man and wife was wonderfully conjured by Padmore’s heightened shaping of the climactic rise and fall.
Cooper’s whispered syncopations sweetly supported the lovely fresh declamations of ‘L’allée est sans fin’, magic and eroticism mingling in the closing exclamation, “Oh! Que notre amour/ N’est-il là niche”, in which the poet’s dream of the enrichening of a love hidden away in a castle encircled by fields and embraced by the setting sun was embodied by the expansive sweep of the vocal line and the piano’s yielding chords. Padmore knows just when to hold back, when to heighten, and in ‘En sourdine’ he waited until the final motif to confirm the power of the nightingale’s song which crowns the lovers’ passion, the high dissonance resolving with all the poignant paradox of a Renaissance lute ayre. Indeed, the following ‘L’heure exquise’ had a Dowland-esque interiority, the vocal line low but sweet, the piano accompaniment tranquil and tender. The delicate rising sixths with which Hahn punctuates the stanzas, “Ô bien aimée”, “Rêvons, c’est l’heure”, made the heart tingle, culminating in a simple, expansive image of jouissance, “C’est l’heure exquise”. The sense of transcendence was extended by Cooper’s brief postlude which conjured the gleaming mysteries of light shining through stained glass.
The evocative rustlings of the piano part and the lightest frisson which rippled through Padmore’s floating whispers, “Ferme tes yeux à demi,/ Croise tes bras sur ton sein”, perhaps made Fauré’s setting of ‘En sourdine’ less ‘muted’, more immediate, than that of Hahn. Indeed, the second of the five mélodies ‘de Venise’ almost seemed to be sung by one of the ‘gallant serenaders’ who exchange sweet nothings in the preceding ‘Mandolin’ – in which Padmore and Cooper captured the lightness and freedom of the moonlit mandolin’s romantic ministries.
The duo captivatingly conveyed both the rhetoric and the reticence of La bonne chanson. The divine mysteries of ‘Une sainte en son auréole’ were followed by the poet-speaker’s ebullience and enchantment in ‘Puisque l’aube grandit’, in which Cooper’s fingers flowed with animated ease through the piano’s ceaseless sextuplets, complementing the increased firmness of tone with which Padmore captured the poet-speaker’s renewed hope and conviction. Fauré’s setting of Verlaine’s ‘La lune blanche’ is more urgent and pressing than Hahn’s ‘L’heure exquise’, but it has a calm at the close – the final arching motif encompassing a self-contained octave, in contrast to Hahn’s reaching, striving ninth – that the duo secured perfectly. The songs were consummately structured, shaped by the textual meaning, just as the poetic details were lovingly evoked. Thus, the ‘thousand quails’ and soaring larks that are hailed by the blissful poet-speaker at the opening of ‘Avant que tu ne t’en ailles’ were dexterously drawn by Cooper’s lucid rendering of the multi-layered piano-birdsong, while the rapture that grows as the rising sun illuminates the glowing fields of ripening corn and glinting dew upon the hay blossomed with ecstatic fulfilment at the close: “Car voici le soleil d’or –” (for here’s the golden sun –).
Fauré harmonically heightens the image of the sky’s sumptuous quivering in his setting of ‘Donc, ce sera par un clair jour d’été (Hahn’s ‘Tous deux’), and Padmore and Cooper stirringly communicated the impassioned inner currents that flow through the poet-speaker. ‘N’est-ce pas?’ pushed forward restlessly. Finally, in ‘L’hiver a cessé’ Padmore made every single word count: this was a joyful, easeful, assured account. Who would not believe that winter was not indeed over?
In some ways, Fauré’s songs, harmonically at least, pick up where Robert Schumann left off, and so the latter’s Liederkreis Op.39 was a well-chosen complement to the French songs of the second half of the programme. I felt that Padmore gave these familiar songs a new sense of spaciousness, allowing the love they express room to speak, and making the words seems spontaneous, as if emerging in the moment. Tense drama infused the forest dialogues of ‘Waldesgespräch’; the closing rapture of ‘Schöne Fremde’ surged and glowed. The vocal phrases of ‘Mondnacht’ were beams of moonlight that dissolved magically into the night air, while Cooper conjured the stars’ pulsing twinkle.
The way Padmore sustained the fermata which closes ‘Auf einer Burg’ – “Und die schone Braut, die weinet” – heightened the strange melancholy of Eichendorff’s portrait of the petrified knight, alone in his silent hermitage while the lively music of nature and man rings through the valley. Is it joy or sadness that fuels the young bride’s tears? The beautifully shaped inconclusive ending emphasised the song’s ambiguous, troubling juxtaposition of the eternal and the ephemeral. ‘Wehmut’ was especially lovely, its inward sorrows exposed with gentle pathos. In contrast, in ‘Zwielicht’ Padmore directly challenged his listeners with the poem’s foreboding questions and commands, the final warning, “Hüte dich, sei wach und munter!”, a dry, dark half-whisper. But, ‘Frühlingsnacht’ brought joyous release in the nightingale’s confirmation, “Sie ist Deine, sie ist Dein!”
It was the four songs with which Padmore and Cooper opened their recital that really had me on the edge of my seat, though. On 1 October 1842, Robert Schumann sent Hans Christian Andersen – whom Clara had met during a concert tour of Copenhagen – a copy of his recently published Fünf Lieder Op.40, which comprised four settings of poems by Andersen and an anonymous ‘Neugriechisch’ poem (in translations by Adelbert von Chamisso), writing of his songs: ‘The music may at first glance seem strange to you. So indeed did your poems first appear to me! As I became more acclimated to them, my music also took on an increasingly exotic character.’ In fact, Schumann’s settings initially seem far from ‘strange’, but the ‘straightforwardness’ of their strophic structures and harmonic language only serves to emphasise the ironic detachment of Andersen’s verses, with their surprising shifts of voice, subversive images, disturbing dreams and bitter, twisting endings.
‘Märzveilchen’ is an unstartling paean to nature, and the springy piano quavers and conversational tone breezed us through the awakening March landscape – though one might have been disorientated by the final prayer that the Lord may have mercy on Jack Frost, whose flowers begin to thaw. In contrast, the piano’s meandering undulations and sparse syncopations at the start of ‘Muttertraum’ immediately warned that the mother’s reflections as she looks upon her slumbering son will be dark and discomforting. Padmore’s low tenor was indeed sombre and foreboding, and the duo captured the disturbing inconclusiveness of the final monotonal vocal cadence and piano postlude, leaving us with images of the portentous ravens and merciless thieves that haunt the sleeping child’s future.
‘Der Soldat’ is a passionate dramatic monologue in which a soldier recalls fulfilling his duty as a member of a firing squad charged with executing his dearest friend. Cooper’s onomatopoeic, bristling drumbeat, conjuring the “gedämpfter Trommel Klang” to which the condemned marches to his death, established an intensity which grew ever more fierce, and Padmore’s brilliant communication of the text emphasised the way Schumann’s setting distorts the natural syntax, revealing the inner turbulence of the poet-speaker. After the powerful fortissimo which serves as a sort of anticipatory drum-roll, the recitative-like revelation, “Ich aber, ich traf ihn mitten in das Herz” (but I, I shot him clean through the heart), was further destabilised by the piano’s dissonant tremolando. Are these words a confession or imagined guilt? Cooper and Padmore relished the song’s ‘gaps’ and ambiguities.
Similarly, shadows hover over the wedding dance depicted at the start of ‘Der Spielmann’, the piano’s light-hearted motifs seeming to mock the bride whose face is ‘pale as death’, and Padmore pushed his tenor hard in telling the horrid narrative of the poor fiddler who is forced to play at his beloved’s wedding to the ‘happy man’ who ‘quaffs the glinting red wine’, and who collapses in distress. The shift of perspective at the end of the song was brilliantly done: for, the narrator intrudes in his own tale, Padmore’s mezza voce revealing both the speaker’s genuine pity for the stricken fiddler and his own fears of a similar demise. And, then, the final twist, as narrator and protagonist are revealed, or perhaps inferred, to be one and the same. Padmore’s final plain pronouncement, “Bin selber ein armer Musikant” (I too am just a poor musician) was terribly vulnerable and discomforting.
This was a superb recital, thoughtfully conceived and brilliantly executed. It closed with the archaic stillness and simple beauty of Hahn’s ‘A Chloris’.
The next concert in Mark Padmore’s Artist in Residence series is on 15th May.
Mark Padmore (tenor), Imogen Cooper (piano)
Schumann – ‘Märzveilchen’ Op.40 No.1, ‘Muttertraum’ Op.40 No.2, ‘Der Soldat’ Op.40 No.3, ‘Der Spielmann’ Op.40 No.4; Liederkreis Op.39; Fauré – ‘Mandoline’, ‘En sourdine’ (from Cinq mélodies ‘de Venise’ Op.58; Hahn – ‘Chanson d’automne’, ‘Tous deux’, ‘L’allée est sans fin’, ‘En sourdine’, ‘L’heure exquise’ (from Chansons grises; Fauré – La bonne chanson Op.61.
Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 14th February 2022.