Heartbreak Transfigured: Schubert in New York
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Franz Schubert: Sonata for Piano in A Major, D. 959 – Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795
Mark Padmore (Tenor), Imogen Cooper (Piano)
Mark Padmore (© Marco Borggreve)
My first experience with the German language came through the songs of Franz Schubert. It’s for that reason that my vocabulary was both a source of perplexity and great amusement for my German teacher. It seems that no one had spoken some of the words that I knew – Seligkeit, for example – in at least 150 years! A music teacher had introduced me to the lieder recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Ever since, I have listened to them with wonder, admiration, and gratitude.
Like most lieder singers (Thomas Quasthoff being the most prominent exception), Padmore is an admirer of Fischer-Dieskau. There are key similarities between them such as superb technique and enunciation, and great attention to the meaning of the text. But Fischer-Dieskau had a more robust sound than Padmore, and his performances were far more dramatic and intense, even to the point of his willingness to sacrifice the beauty of the musical line to achieve the poetic effect embodied in the words.
Padmore does not do this. He is a quintessentially English tenor, who has made his career as a brilliant interpreter of English song and baroque music. He comes out of the British chorale tradition; if he has a signature role, it is the Evangelist in Bach’s Saint Mathew Passion. Padmore has a pure, light, clear, lyrical voice. His phrasing is both elegant and eloquent, and his use of vibrato is quite sparing. He is restrained and never mannered.
All of these characteristics made for a perfect fit with Padmore’s depiction of Schubert’s young miller as a shy, idealistic, romantic dreamer, who could not bring himself to confide in the object of his love, the beautiful maid of the mill. Instead, he confided in a little brook which emerged as a character in the two last songs. In the last song, the brook sang a lullaby to the young man who has, by then, drowned himself in despair.
Much of Schubert’s music was not performed during his lifetime. Die schöne Müllerin, a work of twenty songs linked by a theme and central character, was not performed in its complete version for more than thirty years. Schubert had a tragically short life marked by dazzling creativity. He wrote many of his songs while he was still an adolescent. He was already suffering the first effects of the illness that would kill him (syphilis) when he wrote Die schöne Müllerin. And he was a mere two months away from death when he composed the other work on the program, his Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959.
The program notes quote a letter to a friend written several months after he completed his song cycle. Schubert described himself as “the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world [whose] health will never be right again, …whose most brilliant hopes have perished, [and for whom] the happiness of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain.” That feeling of despair takes much fuller musical form in Schubert’s second song cycle, Winterreise, but it informs this earlier work as well.
Mr. Padmore was indeed fortunate to have Imogen Cooper, the brilliant British pianist, as his collaborator. She was always sensitive to the sense and spirit of the text and to her colleague’s interpretation of it. Padmore and Cooper were true partners. The miller’s shifting emotions – from hopeful love to jealousy, at the appearance of his rival, to despair when he realized all hope was lost – were reflected and at times even anticipated by the piano part. All of the songs were beautifully rendered by both artists. But I did have my favorites. Der Neugierige (The Inquisitive One) was exquisitely sung, with a beautiful legato line and poignant attention to the text. The miller asks the brook whether the maid loves him. He says that ja (yes) and nein (no) are small words but they contain his whole world.
In Trockne Blumen (Withered Flowers), the miller tells the brook that when he dies, the object of his love will walk past his grave and its flowers and know that his love was true. Here, he is surely as delusional as Lensky, the hopelessly romantic poet in Eugene Onegin who, just before he died for love, sang of his hopes that Olga would remember him. This song was beautifully realized. The piano prelude, as played by Ms. Cooper, sounded like a dirge. The end was near.
In the penultimate song, Der Müller und der Bach (The Miller and the Brook), Padmore’s voice took on a different quality, best described as ethereal, when he sang the words of the second character, the brook. In the last song, Des Baches Wiegenlied, (The Brook’s Lullaby), the musical and emotional climax of the cycle, the two artists were superb.
Schubert wrote three piano sonatas at the end of his life. Imogen Cooper’s performance of the second, his Piano Sonata in A major, D. 959 made up the first half of the program. It is a profound and majestic work; even its silences have power and grandeur. There are four movements, the most stunning of which is the second, the andantino. Alfred Brendel, Imogen Cooper’s former teacher, has likened this movement to the paintings of Goya in that both depict the vulnerability of human beings to power, cruelty, and the tragedies of life. I don’t think the comparison is particularly illuminating. Many artists and works of art deal with these themes. While Brendel’s analogy does not convince me, his characterization of the movement certainly does. In its middle section, the exquisite vulnerability of Schubert’s music was ravaged by powerfully disruptive musical events.These were disturbing harmonically, rhythmically, dramatically and texturally. Cooper’s performance was technically brilliant and extraordinarily moving.
Arlene Judith Klotzko