- Jon Vickers / Peter Schaaf (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 1984) – Awash in lugubriousness, with much of it performed at numbingly slow tempos. Though I admired Vickers in some operatic roles, by this time I found his baleful, hollow hoarseness a calculated but unspecific interpretive shortcut.
- Peter Schreier / Alexei Lubimov (Carnegie Hall, 1995) – Schreier was sovereign in his articulation of the text – as clear as if spoken – and in finding nuances without ever seeming to italicize them. Not a conventionally beautiful tone, but a marvelously communicative one, deployed with consummate musicianship.
- Thomas Quasthoff / Charles Spencer (Alice Tully Hall, 1999) – An overwhelming experience. Quasthoff’s physical disability no doubt contributed to the hush that fell over the room, but the spell he created was both vocal (a full-throttle baritone at the peak of his power), and interpretive (emotionally engaged as a great actor).
- Matthias Goerne / Alfred Brendel (Usher Hall, 2001) – Probably the most beautiful voice I’ve heard in this music, with greater legato and a sense of youth, set Goerne apart from the other three. Yet his reading of the text was profoundly mature and mesmerizing – also perhaps the subtlest of this group.
With those points of comparison, I was interested to hear the tenor Mark Padmore’s Winterreise at Alice Tully Hall – more so because his pianist was not the originally announced Paul Lewis (who presumably would have used a modern piano), but the superb Kristian Bezuidenhout, playing a fortepiano.
Padmore’s performance was, in positive and negative ways, highly distinctive, but the comparison that came to me first was to Schreier. Both are true tenors, with a bright, high vocal placement (Vickers sang a number of the songs in lower keys) – and both have voices that are idiosyncratic. In Schreier’s case, there’s a characteristic nasality. For Padmore, it’s more an issue of odd coloration and registration.
Padmore’s upper range is free and easily produced, though he uses a lot of head voice that can turn reedy. Lower down, his tonal resources diminish, and sometimes in that range, Padmore’s delivery is closer to a Spieltenor’s parlando than a sustained, nourished, classical singer. (Bezuidenhout’s always interesting playing, and the clean but rather dry tone of the fortepiano, were a good complement to Padmore’s voice and approach.)Apart from Lieder, Padmore is most celebrated as the Evangelist in Bach’s Matthew Passion, and the vibrato-less production he often uses here seems a stylistic holdover from early music. It can be effective, but for my taste he leans too often on the flat side of notes – sometimes, it’s clearly a coloristic choice, but perhaps not always. (There was some noticeably sagging pitch in this performance.) Even the most melodic songs in Winterreise don’t get much legato.
In terms of interpretation, the comparison I made was to Quasthoff, who was very much an on-the-words actor-singer. Padmore, too, is an actor, and his physical presence – intense concentration, sharp facial features that might belong to 14th Century monk – contribute to the experience.
All this makes Padmore a natural fit for the darkest songs in this very dark cycle. Generally, I found him more effective as he went on – superb in the final two songs, “Die Nebensonnen,”and the shattering “Der Leiermann.” Earlier, he was especially good in the declamatory “Ruckblick.”
But – is Winterreise a cycle that benefits from an additional layer of grimness in the interpretation? I don’t think so.
In fact, I’d argue for the opposite. Schubert and poet Wilhelm Muller have given us such a detailed portrait of faded hope that the singer needs to work against it. Tonal beauty – including a palette of warm colors – paradoxically reinforce the poignancy of the cycle, since the heartbreak is that the narrator is a young man, whose life should still be full of possibility.
There’s almost none of that from Padmore, whose Winterreise might be subtitled “Fifty Shades of Gray.”
To test my conceptions about the cycle, I listened to a handful of songs (including the ones noted above) from a Salzburg performance given this summer by baritone Manuel Walser. Still in his mid-20s, Walser has a notably youthful timbre; his interpretive choices are thoughtful but rather general, and tend to have more to do with musical textures than poetic images. In every case but “Der Leiermann,” I found Walser’s readings more satisfying.
Still, I recognize Padmore’s skill. It would be almost impossible not to.
What ultimately detracted most from this performance for me (though clearly not for most of the audience, who were instantly on their feet at its conclusion) was a pervading sense of calculation. “The art that conceals art” is a phrase some critics use – I’ve thought it a pretentious aphorism, but I understand what they mean. In any case, Mark Padmore’s Winterreise was at the other end of the spectrum – the art that, phrase by phrase, announces itself as “art.”