Friday, October 29, 2010

Die alten, bösen Lieder

Back in the day--long ago, when I believed I could sing--I used to identify as an English tenor. People would make faces when I'd mention it, perhaps thinking of Peter Pears, and say, "Oh no, you don't sound like that!" (For the record, I think Peter Pears was a fine artist with a somewhat unusual vocal technique.) By English tenor I mean the sort, usually born and bred in "...this sceptred isle...this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England", who have a lighter tone, sometimes prone to hootiness at the top, and who are extremely adept at Bach, Handel, Mozart, Britten (of course), and German Lieder.

English tenors of our generation include John Mark Ainsley, about whom I could write volumes (Have you seen his Munich Idomeneo? I was spellbound, in tears!), Philip Langridge, whom we lost earlier this year, and the thinking man's English tenor, Mark Padmore. It's no secret I'm a big fan. (In fact, I started a Facebook fan page. I am a bit disappointed there aren't more members, and no one seems to post except me.)

Last December my beloved hubby and and I hied us to see and hear Mr. Padmore's concert event of Mr. Schubert's Winterreise (to texts by Mr. Wilhelm Müller), dramatized by Katie Mitchell, presented with actor Stephen Dillane and pianist Andrew Wiest. Between them dramatized the poet's winter journey, the bitter cold, loneliness and despair, by presenting most of the songs as written, declaiming the texts of the few that weren't sung, and including additional material by poet Samuel Beckett (who was a devotee of Winterreise). There were also visual and sound elements. I'd like to have seen it again to absorb it more fully, but on a single viewing, I'm not sure I left the theater enlightened. While Mr. Padmore's beautiful singing and intelligent interpretations did not fail me, perhaps my imagination did as I tried to enjoy what boils down to a radio dramatization of Schubert's most profound song cycle. (Here is another reviewer's take on the same event, presented in London earlier last year.)

On Wednesday evening, however, I left Carnegie's Zankel Hall englighted, delighted, and smiling. Mr. Padmore, with the delightful young pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout on the fortepiano, presented an evening of songs to Heinrich Heine texts, mostly by Mr. Robert Schumann. The program began with Mr. Schumann's Heine Liederkreis, op. 24; continued with five Heine songs by Schubert and Schumann contemporary Franz Lachner; and concluded with Mr. Schumann's beloved Dichterliebe, op. 48. Mr. Padmore's singing was beautiful and lyrical and expressive and powerful and subtle. Mr. Bezuidenhout's playing was fiery and lush and delicate, fully a partner with Mr. Padmore's singing. No, gentle reader, your intrepid reporter has not fallen and hit his head on a dictionary. All of this praise and more is what this duo deserves.

As we learned from the excellent program notes and from Mr. Padmore's introductory words, Heine's Buch der Lieder was immensely popular from its publication in 1820, inspiring over 8,000 song settings, not all by brooding Germans. We did not hear all 8,000 Wednesday night, but rather, some of the most lovely from the pen of Schumann. (Mr. Schumann wrote another Liederkreis, op. 39, to poems by Mr. Eichendorff. Some critics prefer those poems, but we won't speak of such petty differences now.) Mr. Schumann wrote two Liederkreis (literally, Song Cycle) settings, Dichterliebe (Poet's Love), and Frauenliebe und -leben (Woman's Love and Life, to poems of Mr. Chamisso), in 1840, his famed Liederjahr (year of song). Oddly enough, this coincided with the year he and Miss Clara Wieck were married after a long and drama-filled courtship.

The Liederkreis songs, according to program notes*, "trace a vague narrative of love's ardor, despair, and the metamorphosis of love and grief into art." Every generation thinks they invented emo, don't they? Mr. Schumann's delicate musical settings do not leave us in despair, however. They capture Mr. Heine's irony, passion, and bitterness with highly involved piano accompaniments and in some places highly declamatory vocal lines. Mr. Padmore gave us all of the poet's ardent feeling, and was always a joy to watch and listen to. In fact, one hardly wanted to look at the translations included with the program, because one could almost read them in Mr. Padmore's face.

Mr. Padmore joked that composer Franz Lachner might very well be making his Carnegie Hall debut that night. He was a contemporary of Schubert, only six years his younger, and the two became great friends during Schubert's last two years. Great friends. Very highly regarded in his time, Lachner is hardly remembered today. His many song settings include a set of Heine songs called Sängerfahrt. (Yes, Sängerfahrt. What, are you lot 14 or something?) The songs Mr. Padmore sang on Wednesday were not as subtle as Schumann or as profound as Schubert, but were not lacking in appeal. Some of the poems are familiar in settings by Schubert and Schumann, including the first song from Dichterliebe, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai. Of course, in the skillful hands of Messrs. Padmore and Bezuidenhout, every bit of beauty to be found was made available to us.

Dichterliebe. Ah, Dichterliebe. I will confess this is the part of the program I know the best, so it was also the part that transported me completely. I don't have superlatives enough to describe the journey singer, pianist, and cynical blogger took with these songs. This is what art is about. This is magic.

Fortunately, these two gentleman have recorded everything on Wednesday's program on a CD that will be released Nov. 19. Fortunately, it can be ordered from Amazon through the Song, Melodie, Lieder page at the Taminophile Amazon store. (Also fortunately, anything else you order from Amazon wlll help swell the Taminophlie coffers if you use the Taminophile store as your starting point.)

*Wonderful program notes by Susan Youens, copyright 2010 Carnegie Hall.


Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

A night of German Lied? Sounds so -zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. However, obviously these performers made it come alive. Thanks for the review!

Taminophile said...

Erika, maybe this is how you prefer your lieder

Lucy said...

Noooo! Can't believe I missed a Liederabend (aber das ist Geschmacksache.) Anyway, many thanks for the review; I'll have to keep my eyes out for Padmore. And more lieder.

Anonymous said...

there is also an englis baritone who is apt at german lieder - simon keenlyside:-)).i think he is one of the best in this repertoire currently.

Taminophile said...

Oh yes, I'm quite familiar with Mr. Keenlyside's recording of Dichterliebe--I listen to it regularly!

Anonymous said...

and Fritz Wunderlich sang Dichterliebe beautifully:-) as well.