Songs of Schumann and Brahms (inspired by Clara) from Padmore and Lewis

Fri Apr 20, 2018 at 1:05 pm
Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis performed a recital Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

Tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis performed a recital Thursday night at Alice Tully Hall. Photo: Marco Borggreve

There was a theme to the recital by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis in the Great Performers series on Thursday–though it might not have been apparent had Padmore not drawn attention to it.

All the songs shared Clara Schumann as their muse. An accomplished composer in her own right, she captured the hearts of two of the Romantic period’s greatest masters: Robert Schumann, whom she married, and Brahms, who pined for her his entire life. On this occasion, we had her to thank, in a sense, for an evening of rich—if occasionally melodramatic—song at Alice Tully Hall.

The early going was rough, not so much a problem of preparation as of approach. Natural ease isn’t Padmore’s greatest strength as a singer; there’s generally a hint of effort in his voice that lends him a certain intensity at the expense of flexibility. He may not be able to flawlessly execute certain vocal effects that come easily to others, but the force with which he communicates the text is second to none.

The problem comes when he tries to pull off those effects anyway, as he did in Schumann’s Liederkreis at the beginning of Thursday’s program. His upper range lacks weight, and his attempts to compensate at the top of a whispered phrase in, for instance, “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen,” came out in an awkward falsetto. Padmore was more effective when allowing his voice to live at its natural weight, as in “Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter,” where he followed the lovely calm of Lewis’s introduction with his own sweet, almost serenade-like singing.

Lewis’s playing in this cycle, and throughout the recital, was gorgeous; joyous sound sprang out of the piano in the opening bars of Liederkreis, and thereafter he played with as much probing attention as he might bring to a sonata, but without ever upstaging Padmore. Indeed, he was wonderfully responsive in the moment—his accompaniment of “Warte, warte, wilder Schiffman,” unusually light of touch, seemed to be mocking the singer’s stormy passion.

Padmore felt much more settled in his voice in the Brahms set showing a nice shine on his top in “Es liebt sich so lieblich im Lenze,” with a fittingly fresh tone. “Der Tod, das ist die kühle nacht” was a classic expression of Weltschmerz, and moved seamlessly from calm resignation to outbursts of angst.

That ease of movement from one set of emotions to the next was Padmore’s greatest asset in this recital, and was most evident in his performance of Schumann’s Dichterliebe on the second half. This touchstone cycle switches back and forth between blissful and brooding, in a dizzying expression of Romantic volatility, and Padmore brought powerful energy in both extremes. His pure, bright sound in the plaintive sadness of “Aus meinen Tränen sprießen” was followed by manic obsession in “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube.” The high, arching phrases of “Ich grolle nicht” brought on a sense of heroic stoicism, while “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” seethed with bitterness.

A number of Padmore’s readings were unusual, allowing the listener to experience these familiar songs from a different angle: the accompaniment of “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” suggests the song could be read as a light-hearted ditty, but Padmore countered the bounding joy of the piano with intense anguish. Most devastating of all “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet,” delivered so plainly it was nearly spoken. The directness of Padmore’s singing made the lament feel almost like an accusation leveled against the audience.

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