Friday, June 26, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Alexander Hall

What’s this? Two days after Midsummer Day and amid stifling temperatures a journey through Winter? In a strange kind of way Schubert’s final song-cycle makes perfect sense, not only as a parable in these Corona-laden times but also as a fitting conclusion to these twenty concerts of music-making extraordinaire in the Wigmore Hall and broadcast live by the BBC as part of its Culture in Quarantine initiative.

At the heart of these twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Müller is the exploration of loss. This includes the pain that comes from rejection in love, the bittersweet emotions that tinge all nostalgia as well as a resigned acceptance of human mortality. Wrapped up in the titles of most of the poems is a prevailing inkiness of mood; the imagery is often startling and uncompromising in its bleakness. Snow, frost and cold inhabit a landscape in which dogs bark, growl and howl, rocky ravines threaten stability and confidence, fingers are numb and tears freeze as they fall, and there is a signpost spelling out the destination from which nobody returns. Even in Der Lindenbaum, redolent with Romantic symbolism, there are references to the depths of night, cold winds and the hard crust of the linden tree itself. Dotted throughout the poems the bird of ill-omen makes its presence felt, the aptly named Corvuscorone. Schubert, who towards the end of 1827 spent his last conscious moments correcting the proofs, would have enjoyed the linguistic irony in a biological curse that is now infecting the modern World.

Part of the difficulty in approaching the greatest of all German song-cycles lies in the demands placed on the interpreter. Müller’s central character is a young man, disappointed in love and disillusioned with life, but who is nevertheless required to display the insights that come with advancing age. The voice needs to suggest the wild swings of emotion to which youth is often prey but must also be capable of providing a necessary objective distance in the narrative thread. Understandably, these songs have attracted a wide range of artists, from Hans Hotter’s bass-baritone in earlier times to Alice Coote’s mezzo (captured for Wigmore Live with Julius Drake). Mark Padmore has himself recorded the cycle twice, in 2010 with Paul Lewis and more recently with Kristian Bezuidenhout using a fortepiano.

In a brief introduction Padmore stressed that Winterreise is an existential rather than a sentimental journey, picking out the twelfth song (separating the two original parts) that dwells on the theme of isolation and solitude as being especially significant. On the basis of this performance, he unquestionably feels very much at home in the entire cycle and brings to it a singular depth and lyrical intensity. This Winterreise ached with the pain of being alive. The simple poignancy of the vocal line in Einsamkeit, underpinned by the softly echoing accompaniment, was beautifully realised by both Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida, crowned by an acceleration into the stormy final stanza.

I found the sense of restlessness and the spiritual torments which inform a number of the settings – the rise and fall as hopes are awakened and then dashed in Im Dorfe, or the outpouring of feeling in the earlier Erstarrung when the traveller’s heart is frozen stiff, for instance – played to Padmore’s strengths. He was especially good at conveying the weariness and the anguish that come from the fracturing of an individual personality, not least in the penultimate Die Nebensonnen where three suns mock the traveller’s presence and he is reduced to the chilling observation that he would be better off in the dark.

If the exposed sinews in Padmore’s voice and the occasional pinched tone served to emphasise the growing sense of distress and pathos, especially in the ninth setting, Irrlicht, where the final line concludes with the realisation that every suffering will find its grave, his tendency elsewhere to stretch the German vowels and ignore the importance of some consonant endings was not entirely idiomatic. These songs benefit from greater light and shade as well as more of a variation in the basic pulse than we had here. The tempo for Irrlicht was quite slow and deliberate – this is will-o’-the-wisp territory, after all – and he didn’t quite capture the sense of capriciousness in Frühlingstraum or the need to summon up more demonstrative Dutch courage in Mut.

At Padmore’s side was the superbly supportive Uchida. There was an arresting start to the second number Die Wetterfahne and she neatly picked up the gusts of wind in the swirling lines of the accompaniment. Whenever the words suggested it, she was there with suitably blustery tones. I equally liked the pinpoint succession of staccato notes, tracing the trajectory of falling tears in Gefrorne Tränen, and the way she set the scene at the outset of Letzte Hoffnung where the notes felt like stabs to the heart.

There were many moments to cherish and if pressed to pick out a highlight it would have to be Das Wirtshaus. Uchida’s measured and careful placing of chords in the lower register when the talk is of funeral wreaths, biers and a graveyard was picked up in Padmore’s slightly bleached tone and the stark ending when the unmerciful inn turns the traveller away with only his trusty wandering staff for company.

And so after almost eighty minutes we reached journey’s end, a world of sorrows magisterially traversed. The rest is silence.