Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida bring darkness and dreams to Wigmore Hall

Mark Padmore continued his season-residency at Wigmore Hall with a programme of lieder by Beethoven and Schubert.  In the latter’s ‘Ihr Bild’, one of the Heine settings in Schwanengesang, the unhappy protagonist stands gazing at the picture of his beloved, lost in dark dreams, “in dunkeln Träumen”.  In this recital, Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida seemed to juxtapose, and sometimes unite, darkness and dreaming: the songs spoke of despair and disillusionment, but also presented delusions which sometimes brought fragile, if temporary, delight.

At this stage in his esteemed career, Padmore knows exactly what he can do with his voice, and how to make it do what it does very well.  If the listener misses some qualities of the familiar songs that might be brought forth by weight and coloristic range, then there is plenty more – exemplary attentiveness to verbal sound, intellectual engagement with textual meaning, and vocal embodiment of the latter – to make one ponder, and to persuade.  I have felt at times, though, that it does take the tenor a little while to settle into a recital, and that was, I think, the case here, the initial sequence of Beethoven songs feeling a little variable, the direction of their intensity not quite certain.   

Perhaps that’s because the consistency of Beethoven’s melodic invention in these songs is not always secure.  But, there were some hints of vocal fragility, and a slight tentativeness, in the first three songs, which opposed hope and resignation.  Happily, by the time we reached An die ferne Geliebte, Padmore was fully into his groove. ‘Auf dem Hügel sitz’ ich, spähend’ (I sit on the hill, gazing) was fittingly pensive and distracted, the accelerandos lacking inapt hastiness, the expressions of distress mutedly musing rather than melodramatic.  Uchida’s accompaniment was wonderfully shadowy in the final vocal phrase, “Und ein liebend Herz erreichet/ Was ein liebend Herz geweiht!” (and a loving heart is reached by what a lovely heart has hallowed!), but then found definition and strength in the postlude-transition into ‘Wo die Berge so blau’ (Where the blue mountains), though in this song Padmore’s monotonal line refused the invitation and remained affectingly distant and otherworldly.

A hint of the protagonist’s pain came with the shift to the minor tonality in the centre of ‘Leichte Segler in den Höhen’, when nature is called upon to convey the lover’s haunting longings, “Klagt ihr,  Vöglein, meine Qual” (pour, you birds, my torment), the slightest elongation in the piano a short but sharp twist of the knife; and, the rallentando and diminishing of the final phrase poignantly conjured the melancholy stream of never-ending tears.  Moreover, though the protagonist seemed to shore up his self-belief through nuanced elongation in ‘Es kehret der Maien’ (May returns) – what winter parted, May has joined – the hovering delays which held up the final song, as the red rays of the sun sank behind the mountains, suggested only an eternal denial of fulfilment: the beloved’s song is an echo of the protagonist’s longing, “Nur der Sehnsucht sich bewusst”, and how fitting was Uchida’s return to the beginning, and restatement of the opening vocal phrase of the first song – simultaneously frustrating, inevitable and as it ‘must be’, contrasting emotions which clashed and cohered in the closing vocal and instrumental utterances.

Any performer of Schwanengesang must make some decisions: how to order the two groups of Schubert’s settings of poems by Rellstab and Heine; whether to interleave additional poems between the two sets; whether to include the perky ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon Post) which was appended to the sequence by Schubert’s publisher Tobias Haslinger?  Although the Rellstab sequence ends with ‘Abschied’ (Farewell), these settings customarily precede the Heine songs.   Here, the effect seemed to be, first, a presentation of the reality of experience, followed by, not what is sometimes described as Heine’s customary irony, but rather – by turns, horrifying, haunting and hopeful – fantastic other-worlds.

‘Liebesbotschaft’ (Love’s message) made for a relaxed beginning, the gentle vocal tone, absence of significant coloristic contrasts, and subtle rubatos – “Ach, trautes Bächlein,/ Mein Bote sei Du;” (Ah, be my messenger, beloved brooklet) – suggesting calm and repose.  Indeed, the tender pointing of the text, emphasising slumber (“Schlummer”) and murmuring (“Rausche”), consolidated the musical mood.  But, while the piano’s dotted calls-to-attention at the start of the succeeding ‘Kriegers Ahnung’ (Warrior’s foreboding) were not stabbing accents but rather pressing alerts, there was a firmness and greater drama in this song, the piano’s inner voices suggesting the complexity of the protagonist’s emotions, and vocal emphasis within the pianissimo vocal phrase evoking resigned despair: “Bald ruh’ ich wohl und schlafe fest,/ Herzliebste – Gute Nacht!” (I shall soon be at rest and fast asleep, sweet love – good night!).

Both ‘Frühlingssehnsucht’ (Spring longing) and ‘Ständchen’ (Serenade) had a lovely freshness.  In the former, the piano’s slight accents at the stanza-ends seemed to lift the voice to its tentative questions, ‘Wohin?’, ‘Warum?’.  And, Padmore saved his head voice for the direct address to the beloved, ‘Und du?’, which made the sudden burst of strength and energy at the close of the final stanza all the more urgent: “Nur Du befreist den Lenz in der Brust,/ Nur Du!” (Only you can set free the spring in my hear, only you!)  Similarly, it was the small details rather than big gestures that made ‘Aufenthalt’ (Resting place) so affecting, and the final sustained high G, “Starrender Fels” (unyielding rock), so striking – an almost shocking submission to unremitting grief. 

‘In der Ferne’ sounded ‘far away’, the ‘-enden’ rhymes almost mesmerising – perhaps, one might suggest, quasi-spoken – and only the contrasting ‘-ach’ rhyme at the end of the first stanza initiating a songful impetus towards the more flowing major-key episodes.  A long pause preceded ‘Abschied’.  Again, the tempo was steady: the piano lacked any genuine brightness in its step and its harmonic digressions seemed ever more agitated, the lightness of Padmore’s tenor suggesting an ironic detachment that was a discomforting challenge to the protagonist’s facile farewells to his surrounding environment.

But, with the first of the Heine songs, ‘Der Atlas’, a ferocity intruded, first in Uchida’s pounding octave snarls in the bass, and then in Padmore’s pained heightening of the text, as the burden of bearing the weight of the world broke the protagonist’s body (“und brechen/ Will mir das Herz im Liebe.”) and made his heart wretched: “Und jetzo bist du elend.”  The fierce resounding of the piano’s final chord sustained the anger and despair like a suspended, irresolvable agony.  After the tortured admission of loss at the close of ‘Ihr Bild’, the protagonist seemed to slip into the fantasy of the lyrical comforts of ‘Das Fischermädchen’, and if the dreams turned to Gothic nightmare in ‘Die Stadt’, then ‘Am Meer’ promised to be a sweetening lullaby.  But, the deception was revealed when the consoling strains slowed and faded, the startling diminishment of the final vocal phrase embodying the actuality of the final poetic image: the unhappy woman has poisoned him with her tears (“Vergiftet mit ihren Tränen”).

A terrible ‘stillness’ gripped ‘Der Doppelgänger’, which only made more harrowing the wringing of hands, the gruelling shudders, and the shock when the moon reveals to the protagonist that it is his own form (“meine elgne Gestalt”) that stands, wracked with pain, before the house where his loved-one lived.  Silence followed stillness.  And, then, ‘Die Taubenpost’ languidly unfolded, with a quasi-ironic slow lilt: questioning, yearning, unceasing.  The name of the bird that the protagonist sends out to ‘spy out the land’ and ‘peep in at the window’ of his beloved’s house is ‘Sehnsucht’.  In Padmore and Uchida’s bittersweet telling, the fantasy, it seemed, would become the protagonist’s reality.

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Beethoven – ‘An die Hoffnung; Op.94, ‘Resignation’ WoO.149, ‘Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel’ WoO.150, An die ferne Geliebte Op.98; SchubertSchwanengesang D957

Wigmore Hall, London; Sunday 15th May 2022.