The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall was the destination for a capacity crowd on Sunday as British tenor Mark Padmore was joined by Boston pianist Jonathan Biss in an ambitious program exploring art song extremes of agony and ecstasy.
Agony came in the form of two song groups by Robert Schumann. Padmore has recorded a range of art song to go along with his extensive work in early music, including a CD of the Schumann song cycles to texts by Heinrich Heine (here). Biss explored Schumann’s cultural legacy in his Schumann: Under the Influence project (here and reviewed here), and first worked with Padmore in this series. Before the recital began, Padmore explained that the pair got along famously in the Under the Influence concerts and decided to work together again, with this recital being the first result. Padmore cited Schumann’s songs as an ideal jumping off point, since they give so much for both singer and pianist to do.
The Op. 24 Liederkreis was Schumann’s first song cycle, a setting of poems from Heinrich Heine’s Book of Songs. Padmore’s delivery of this cycle set the tone for much of the afternoon. He had a score in front of him, but mostly performed without looking at it. He had the challenge of maintaining contact with the audience ringed all around him, and handled it by turning head, shoulders, and body, making eye contact with varying sections and rows throughout Calderwood Hall. Padmore’s body movements were centered and tastefully restrained, without the head bobbing and jerking that distracted in his past art song performances. His voice is not big, and in some lower registers, when his back was to me, I had difficulty hearing him over the piano, particularly challenging in the angry, bitter passages of “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden.” In higher, louder passages, like the high A that ends “Warte, wilder Schiffman,” Padmore uncoiled a voice of steely, ringing clarity, and he deployed nearly every conceivable dynamic shading between that firm sound and a crooned pianissimo, used to stunning effect on the words, “und schlich mir ins Herz hinein” (and stole into my heart) in “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen.” Padmore used extra breathiness to lend an otherworldly feel to the birds’ narration at “Es kam ein Jungfräulein gegangen” in the same song. His diction was impeccable, and he used tempo and phrasing with supple flexibility, speeding up and slowing down to show the poet’s frustrated anticipation at, “will my sweetheart come today?” in “Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage,” or shaping the unexpected melodic and harmonic detour on “Ich aber niemandem trau’” that ends “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen.” All of this was conveyed with intelligence and sensitivity to shape Heine’s texts of despair, alienation, fury, and irony. Particularly memorable was the final song, “Mit Myrten und Rosen,” which in quick succession explores the realms of fire (“Hervorgestürtzt aus dem tiefsten Gemüt, und rings viel blitzende Funken versprüht!”), ice (“Nun liegen sie stumm und totengleich, nun starren sie kalt und nebelbleich”) and the quickening that links the two (“Doch aufs neu die alte Glut sie belebt, wenn der Liebe Geist einst über sie schwebt.”)
I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard Biss before (here has a number of fine performances from past Sunday afternoons at the Gardner Museum). He technical skill again were harnessed to a potent musical imagination. Biss compensated for Padmore’s modest sized voice by playing in a crisply articulated fashion, with minimal pedaling, and in a narrow dynamic range (though I wonder at the wisdom of leaving the lid off of the Calderwood Steinway; the audience in the upper deck must have gotten a lot of piano with a smattering of voice here and there). Biss matched Padmore step for step through twists and turns of speed and dynamics, and applied a broad range of colors and voicings to illuminate the text (the staccato figures of “Lieb’ Liebchen” stood in for a pounding heart and the detached hammering of coffin-nails, offering a delicious ironic contrast to the singer’s sustained anguish at “Da hauset ein Zimmerman, schlimm und arg, der zimmert mir ein Totensarg.”) In “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden,” Biss brought out a tenor line in the left hand, which repeats over and over again to suggest the singer’s obsessive ruminations. And in the final “Mit Myrten und Rosen,” at the words, “Da blüht es hervor, da pflückt man es ab,” Biss returned to the same clipped staccato that recalls the hammering Zimmerman of “Lieb’ Liebchen,” demonstrating a connection between the two songs that I had never noticed. My only gripe with this performance was in the seventh song, “Berg’ und Burgen schauen herunter.” This song repeats the same melody over four strophes of text, and its images of glistening rivers, rippling waves, and lurking depths seem to need more flexibility of approach, more variation within each strophe to avoid slipping into homogeneous stasis. But that was one small blemish in the work of this marvelous duo, which cast a magic spell on this woolly, weird song cycle.
Prior to the second work of anguish, Schumann’s Op. 90 Gedichte und Requiem, Padmore described his art-song credo: “Speak the words, sing the melody, feel the rhythm, hear the harmony.” The pair negotiated these even weirder songs with enviable skill, maintaining a jaunty air through the weird phrase structure of “Lied eines Schmieds,” giving a sense of abrupt interruption at the singer’s entry of “Meine Rose” and offering an equally abrupt piano playout; toying in “Einsamkeit” between a sonic world of dark forests, reminiscent of moments from Dichterliebe but offering some bleak comfort at “Der dich höret und versteht, stille hier der Geist der Liebe.” And the final “Requiem” of this set glowed with fervent intensity, though in the effort to be heard in the crescendo to “Herrn erschaut in Himmelspracht,” Padmore’s voice seemed to convey more of a sense of terror than ecstatic joy at the vision of “his Lord in the glory of Heaven.”
The second half of the recital moved to the realm of ecstasy, opening with Michael Tippett’s Boyhood’s End, which sets texts by British naturalist W.H. Hudson, recalling his discovery of the marvels of nature as a child growing up in Patagonia. The work was written for Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten, and the latter complained about the fierce difficulty of the piano part. Biss artfully negotiated the piano part’s wild twists and turns, making the wild flashes and runs sound effortless. Padmore sang with equal authority, with English-language enunciation clear enough to take dictation, and offering a succession of crazed but thoughtfully shaped and evocative melismas which lent a fantastical joy to phrases like “If after a thousand years that sound should float o’er my tomb, my bones uprising in their gladness would dance in the sepulchre.”
The regular program concluded with Gabriel Fauré’s La bonne chanson, one of the few song cycles I know to explore happiness in love. Padmore delivered the same crystalline articulation in French as he did in German and English, even through Fauré’s extended high-flying phrases. His vocal control was astonishing, as in the octave leap to pianissimo on “C’est l’heure exquise” in “La lune blanche” or “L’amour, délicieux vainqueur” in “J’allais par les chemins perfides.” In “Avant que tu ne t’en ailles,” he varied tone and inflection to suggest two different voices in dialogue. Biss showed a similar range of colors and shadings, particularly limpid in evoking the moon over the water in “La lune blanche,” and using a gentle accelerando to suggest icicles melting and thawing to begin the final song, “L’hiver a cessé.” The pairing with the Tippett brought out the modernistic elements in Fauré’s cycle, what with its impossible melismas on ecstatic topics, and its harmonic waywardness which perfectly illustrates Verlaine’s odd verse. For an encore, the pair played “Ständchen,” from Schubert’s Schwanengesang, a song that Padmore described as an illustration of Cole Porter’s phrase, “How strange the change from major to minor.” “Ständchen” received a Schumannesque performance, with gorgeous, beautifully shaped crooning from Padmore and a gentle, dry, unpedaled fairy march from Biss.
It was a sublime afternoon, made all the more remarkable by the realization that Padmore was coming off of singing the Evanglist in the Peter Sellars’s staging of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic in New York the weekend before. The duo then performed this recital program in Washington and repeated it in Philadelphia on October 15th. For all its quirks, Calderwood Hall offered the most intimate setting for this most agonizing, ecstatic program. Padmore returns to Britain for a range of programs, and Biss is starting a tour with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The Gardner’s next offering will be a program by the Boston Children’s Chorus on Saturday.