After shaky start, Padmore, Bezuidenhout deliver powerful Schubert

Thu Oct 15, 2015 at 2:05 pm
Mark Padmore performed Schubert's "Die Schöne Müllerin" Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Mark Padmore performed Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin” Wednesday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

This week was circled as a highlight in many New York concertgoers’ fall calendars: tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis, performing Schubert’s three great song cycles over three evenings, in the sonorous confines of Alice Tully Hall. A sure thing, if there ever was one.

Lewis, alas, was forced to withdraw due to emergency surgery, but stepping in to fill his place was the fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, who proved to be a remarkable addition to Wednesday’s performance of Die Schöne Müllerin.

It’s commonplace these days to hear the Schubert cycles sung by baritones, and in the shadow of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau one might even say it’s standard, notwithstanding the fact that the original key is most comfortable for a tenor.

The experience in these cycles is decidedly different in each range. For instance in Die Schöne Müllerin, a twenty-song account of a mill-worker’s obsession with the miller’s daughter, a tenor might offer a brighter mood, more pluck in the first half, diving exuberantly into the innocent hope of early songs like “Das Wandern.” There is less comfort, though, to be found when the text and music turn tragic, exposing any hardness in the voice as the register rises and the dynamics grow softer.

Padmore’s performance on Wednesday night followed that basic pattern, though he never quite sounded comfortable in the music. From “Das Wandern” through “Halt!” his sound was effortful, his vibrato wide and his tone thin. He pushed hard to sustain volume—harder than necessary, given that he was singing in an acoustically live auditorium and accompanied by a fortepiano, which is darker and quieter than our modern pianoforte.

He seemed somewhat more secure in “Am Feierabend,” as his sound remained taut but his singing showed more forward energy. Yet in the very next song, “Der Neugierige,” even pitch became a problem; Padmore’s intonation strayed considerably, and he made his unaccompanied entrance in the third stanza painfully flat.

It was not until the latter half of the cycle, beginning with “Tränenregen,” that Padmore’s voice settled, allowing him to craft what proved to be an unusual but daring interpretation. His phrases in this song, and in those that followed, were thoughtful and elegantly arched, but the first glimmers of darkness came into his singing as the text darkly foreshadowed the cycle’s tragic end.

From this point on, there was an unhinged quality to Padmore’s characterization. He seemed to will his cares away in “Mit dem grünen Lautenbande,” achieving his brightest and lightest tone of the evening, and singing with tipsy glee. The illusion did not last long—Padmore and Bezuidenhout began the following song, “Der Jäger,” attacca, making an alarming shift into an outburst of vicious rage against the huntsman who wins the mill-maid’s affections.

The feeling of psychological unease persisted all the way to the crucial “Trockne Blumen,” the mill-worker’s final song before he tosses himself into the brook. At this point in the text, the speaker has already decided on his fate, but Padmore seemed unresolved, nervous, as though he had not yet come to terms with his decision.

Bezuidenhout, the fortepianist, was a revelation as a lieder accompanist. It’s not easy to steal the stage from the singer in this cycle, and he nearly did, though not by showing up his partner or drawing extra attention to his part. Throughout the evening his articulations were precise and his textures rich; at times, his playing seemed to show a greater range of color than Padmore’s singing.

But a good accompanist has to fly under the radar somewhat, and so it was Bezuidenhout’s subtlest gestures that added the most to the collaboration. He paid particular attention to the echoes of “Das Wandern” that are sprinkled throughout the cycle, such as in the opening chords of “Die böse Farbe.” The second stanza of “Die liebe Farbe” was ever so slightly more insistent than the first, and in the closing bars of “Trockne Blumen” he executed a gradual shift of color as he moved down the keyboard, vividly describing the mill-worker’s fate.

Mark Padmore and Kristian Bezuidenhout will perform Schubert’s Schwanengesang and Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte 7:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by Schubert’s Winterreise 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Alice Tully Hall.

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