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CD Review

Franz Schubert

Winterreise, D. 911

Mark Padmore, tenor
Paul Lewis, piano
Harmonia Mundi HMU907484
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This excellent new Winterreise is one for the twenty-first century. Understated yet passionate; reflective yet not self-indulgent; spare, yet rich in the wonderful melodies in which the cycle abounds, it succeeds in meeting many quite disparate expectations, yet makes no compromises. To sing about recollection, lost love, death and resignation is actually harder than merely to sing mournfully, slowly and wistfully. The two performers here (Mark Padmore, tenor, Paul Lewis, piano) have produced an excellent embodiment of the songs' varying (for variety is key) moods and outlooks.

The second of Schubert's two great song cycles to Müller's poems (the earlier is Die schöne Müllerin (D795, from 1823) is considered by many as the greatest song cycle ever written. In two parts of a dozen Lieder each, it was actually composed that way – in February and October of 1827, the year before Schubert's death. Padmore and Lewis' compact yet highly expressive account takes up almost an hour and twenty minutes on this single Harmonia Mundi CD. Yet never for a second drags. It must now be considered an eminent front-runner in choosing a recording of the work.

Variety is indeed important in Winterreise; if for no other reason than to present the utterly dismal and despairing inner and outer worlds of the protagonist from several angles, thereby emphasizing each and adding to the cumulative effect. Padmore and Lewis respect this trait well. Particularly where the "Reise" side of Winterreise goes: this is a journey so we hear many speeds in the weather, animals and humans as they trudge…amble…strut…plod etc. Similarly the Winter blows, deprives, chills, scares and eventually perhaps comforts and absorbs. At the same time neither performer overplays the sound painting. Neither overdramatizes. There is a kind of noblesse and a wish for detachment and peace that pervades the cycle that's never quite achieved. Surely this subtlety is completely in keeping with the emotions that the young man experiences and yet has the presence of mind to reflect on.

At the same time, the challenge is to present that reflection as being in part for us, the listeners – or observers, but in truth for the rejected lover's own need to understand and accept his situation. Other recordings of Winterreise have tended towards the declamatory and melodramatic in (quite honorable) service of the one extreme; or towards introverted Angst in order to evoke the other. While it's impossible to gauge how contemporary performers (Winterreise was actually not accepted in its entirety until after the advent of gramophone recording, in 1928) imagined the Lieder ought to be played. But the fact that individual songs were extracted from it suggests that there was less awareness of the impact it needs for its stirring greatness to be revealed than of the merits of individual songs.

It almost goes without saying that Padmore's articulation is impeccable. Every syllable, every phoneme (including some very guttural 'chs!), is clearly audible – and to great purpose. His phrasing and pacing are both fully in the service of expressing the emotions. But the emotions of each song as they come into focus. Not of each song in the vague poorly-defined service of an overall "impression" of misery, as lesser interpretations descend into. Not infrequently, the words are projected as though the tenor were encountering them for the first time…

Durch des Bergstroms trockne Rinnen
Wind' ich ruhig mich hinab,
Jeder Strom wird's Meer gewinnen,
Jedes Leiden auch sein Grab.

in Irrlicht [tr.9], for example. The "i", "ei", and "ee" sounds truly are made to suggest someone struggling to find their way in a very alien environment.

By the same token, both tenor and pianist pay great attention to dynamics: there is greater variety than in most recent performances… pp to ff. This might at first be off-putting, the louder passages in particular. But as repeated listenings reveal this as a technique to re-inforce the Wahnsinn of the young man (especially when combined with otherwise unremarkable events which are so emphasized… animals' behavior, for example, in Frühlingstraum [tr.11]), its effectiveness becomes the greater. When the piano and voice are made to contrast loudness and softness (and vice-versa), the effect is chilling indeed.

Such madness is not overdone by Padmore. Just that the extent to which he assumes the character of the hero means that you "Never know what to expect". This puts this Winterreise on the tragic (rather than oratorical) side of the dramatic. In this Padmore is supported and aided significantly by Paul Lewis extremely sensitive and perceptive accompaniment. the pace and respect for bar lines in Die Post [tr.13], for example. And the abrupt endings.

The metaphor of Padmore and Lewis' Winterreise, though, must not be thought of as operatic. Still less oratorio. The acoustic in which the recording was made is somehow as empty as the landscape through which the protagonist travels. This is a song cycle. It is intimate… for all the movement and potentially open world of a usually noisy bird in Die Krähe [tr.15], such moments are consistently intimate, close; claustrophobic, almost. This inward-looking atmosphere is never more frightening and affecting than in the appeal to eternal despair of the final three songs.

There is, at times, a danger that Padmore's delivery could verge on the mannered. It's certainly rather "forward", certainly very "present". For example in the first song, Gute Nacht, where there is a tone of almost defiant resistance:

Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe,
Die Mutter gar von Eh',
- Nun ist die Welt so trübe,
Der Weg gehüllt in Schnee.

But on listening more closely the mixture of humility and of the protagonist's feeling rejected, not to say puzzled (at what he's undergoing), comes to the fore. Such that the tenor strikes just the right note of perplexity and confusion, not to say self-destructive near-madness by the time we get to the anguish of "Ei" in Gefror'ne Tränen:

… Ei Tränen, meine Tränen,
Und seid ihr gar so lau,
Daß ihr erstarrt zu Eise
Wie kühler Morgentau?

The tone is set and the complex blend of pity but not self-pity, resentment and presentiment are established in such a way that the rest of the tragedy makes sense through the way it develops in the course of the 24 songs, not by a a restatement or repetition of the same emotion.

The presentation is up to Harmonia Mundi's high standards, muted grays for the booklet, reproductions of appropriate nature paintings, and for the CD itself set against the ebony color palette of the "Digipac" add to the wintry atmosphere. There is a brief introductory essay, the texts in German, English and French as well as short biographies of Padmore and Lewis.

Other versions of Winterreise alongside which this Harmonia Mundi release can confidently take its place are those by Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier from 1998 on Teldec (0630-18824-2); by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Jörg Demus from 1996 on DG Originals (447421-2) and Matthias Goerne and Alfred Brendel from 1994 on Decca (467092-2). Few lovers of the work will want to settle for one recording alone. With nearly a hundred available from the current catalog, Padmore and Lewis have stiff competition. They have met the challenge very well indeed. This is a recording with will please for a very long time.

Copyright © 2010, Mark Sealey.