A harrowing but very ‘human’ Winterreise from Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis at Wigmore Hall

There could really only be one work with which Mark Padmore would conclude this season residency at Wigmore Hall, a series forming his final solo recitals at the Hall, but if Schubert’s Winterreise was unsurprising programming, then the focused intensity of this performance with pianist Paul Lewis was still striking.  This was not so much a winter’s journey in which the wanderer propelled himself, and us, recklessly through an external icy landscape, rather an inexorable opening up of an interior world into which we were drawn by an irresistible fixity of vision.

From the cycle’s opening song, ‘Gute Nacht’, there was a spaciousness about this interpretation which was almost dangerously inviting – an occasional subtle halting at the turns of phrase, a quiet flourish given room to breathe.  Lewis’s initiating steps were gentle and soft, a quiet, almost dreamy padding through the snow rather than a determined onwards tread.  But, that’s not to suggest that there was not a cogent unifying tension.  Throughout the cycle, the pianist was physically still, his back straight, all the music’s energy focused in his hands.  Padmore, his gaze directed at a hinterland horizon, was similarly motionless, rooted in an interiority which, song by song, became our world too.

There seemed an almost tentative quality about the setting forth – “Ich kann zu meiner Reisen/ Nicht wählen mit der Zeit” (I cannot choose the time for my journey) – and if resentment fuelled a more pressing urgency, “Was soll ich länger weilen Dass man mich trieb’ hinaus?” (Why should I wait any longer for them to drive me out?), then it immediately subsided into wistful contemplation: “Die Liebe liebt das Wandern –” (Love loves to wander –). 

The prevailing subdued mood, at least of the opening songs, not only brought the words to the fore – as ever, Padmore’s diction was meticulous and natural – but also made the carefully crafting of specific emotive gestures potent.  So, in ‘Die Wetterfahne’ (The weather-vane) Lewis’s whipping wind was dry and cruel, mocking ‘the wretched fugitive’, and the outburst of anger with which the song concluded – “Was fragen sie nach meinen Schmerzen?  Ihr Kind ist eine reiche Braut.” (What is my torment to them? Their child’s a rich bride.) – was disturbing in its unpredictability.  The falling tears of ‘Gefrorne Tränen’ seemed less icy than is customary, but we could be in no doubt of the ‘fierce heat’ from which they spring, as Padmore’s earnest confession, “Und dringt doch aus der/ Quelle Der Brust so glühend heiss” (And yet you spring from my heart), melted the winter’s ice, the piano’s low sforzandos resounding fluidly.

At times there was an unexpected outburst of forthrightness and power, as in ‘Erstarrung’ when from the inwardness Padmore flung out an almost desperate plea, “Wo find’ ich eine Blüte,/ Wo find’ ich grünes Gras?” (Where shall I find a flower, where shall I find green grass?), immediately retreating back into numbness.  In ‘Wasserflut’ (Flood), rhythmic emphasis of the misalignment of the vocal triplets with the piano’s taut dotted motif heightened the ‘burning anguish’ which the cold flakes quell, and the assertiveness directness of the closing rebuke to the snow dissolved into the piano’s concluding phrase, as if the traveller’s troubled breathing subsided into rest.  A similar tugging tension between retreat and rhetoric marked the close of ‘Auf dem Flusse’ (On the river), making the contrast between the apparent stillness of the water and the wanderer’s heart and the raging torrents beneath the surface terribly troubling.  The result was a sustained anguish which was never hyperbolic or ‘theatrical’, just ever-present – a pain to which the wanderer was resigned, a suffering which could only be accepted, never overcome.

Lewis’s contribution to the very ‘human’ quality of this performance cannot be under-estimated.  The precise measure of gesture, colour, weight and texture was deceptively effortless and disarming.  The rushing rustle of the linden tree’s bowers really was a swirling gust of ‘air’, and the steady tempo of ‘Der Lindenbaum’ allowed Lewis to craft lucid inner voices, conjuring the haunting presence of the tree which presses into the wanderer’s consciousness.  The persistent momentum of ‘Rückblick’ was crisply clean – no backward glances permitted here – while ‘Irrlicht’ (Will-o’-the-wisp) had a lovely quizzical quality, the piano’s concluding phrase magically, teasingly growing from the voice’s declaration, “Jeder Strom wird’s Meer gewinnen,/ Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab” (every river will reach the sea, every sorrow find its grave).

The controlled accumulation of concentrated intensity as the duo moved through the cycle embraced the entire Hall.  The faraway otherness of ‘Frühlingstraum’ was deceptively comforting, but the song closed with an almost unbearably gentle pianissimo, “Wann halt’ ich mein Liebchen im Arm?” (When shall I hold my love in my arms?), a questioning sorrow which Lewis’s delicate spreading of the final chord spun into infinity.  Then, there was a restless tension between the piano’s two hands in ‘Einsamkeit’ which seemed to tug the wanderer down into an abyss of loneliness.  The hasty flight of ‘Die Post’ (The mail-coach) was countered by the lyrical reflectiveness of ‘Der greise Kopf’ (The hoary head).  ‘Die Krähe’ was strangely light and gentle, the circling crow not so much threatening as simply watching with calm indifference, though no less portentous – as indeed the following song, ‘Letzte Hoffnung’ (Last hope), made clear, through the piano’s prickly spiccato fragments and the heightened tension of the voice as the wanderer became lost in his own thoughts.

Somehow Lewis made the piano’s ‘friendly light’ which dances before the deluded traveller at the start of ‘Täuschung’ seem desperately ironic, and this song marked a heightening of the probing which was sustained through the closing sequence.  ‘Das Wirthaus’ was brilliantly structured, the piano’s opening chords a dangerously seductive invitation, Padmore’s tenor almost eerily calm and composed, until the rare use of a head voice imbued the final stanza with an aching vulnerability: “O unbarmherz’ge Schenke,/ Doch weisest du mich ab?” (O pitiless inn, yet you turn me away?)  ‘Mut’ was defiant and robust, but of ‘Die Nebensonnen’ one can only say that song and singer were ‘elsewhere’, in the ‘dark’ for which the wanderer yearns.

It doesn’t matter how many times I hear Winterreise, it always seems to me a surprise, after an hour of musical journeying, to have reached ‘Der Leiermann’ – it’s both the inevitable conclusion and an impossible one.  Lewis’s soft crunching of the acciaccatura into the piano’s bare fifth made this sparse, exposed song even more disconcerting that usual though.  This was a real pianissimo, distant and disorientating, but there was a warmth in the simple right-hand melody that curled and hooked its way around the carefully sculpted vocal line.  And, was I mistaken to hear a renewal of energy, courage even, in Padmore’s strengthening of the wanderer’s final questions: “Wunderlicher Alter, Soll ich mit dir gehn? Willst zu meinen Liedern  Deine Leier drehn?” (Strange old man! Shall I go with you? Will you grind your hurdy-gurdy to my songs?)  Was there hope in the tenor’s fixed stare into an imagined future?

Claire Seymour

Mark Padmore (tenor), Paul Lewis (piano)
Schubert: Winterreise
Wigmore Hall, London; Saturday 25th June 2022.