LONDON (Reuters Life!) - When Franz Schubert died at age 31, he left not only his “Unfinished Symphony” but three song cycles so profound singers and pianists tend not to touch them until they have more years under the belt than Schubert managed.
At 50 and 38, respectively, British tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis feel their time has come.
“I think that they’re absolute pinnacles of experience of the artistic world, they match anything else,” Padmore told Reuters.
He spoke during a joint interview with Lewis at the pianist’s home in the London suburbs where the pair were rehearsing songs that, in the musical sphere, get as close to the dark facets of the soul as anything Shakespeare wrote for the stage.
They’ve recorded all three of the cycles, “Die Schone Mullerin” (The Miller’s Daughter), “Winterreise” (Winter Journey) and the one Schubert completed just before his death, “Schwanengesang” (Swan Song), for the British independent label Harmonia Mundi. “Winterreise” got a Gramophone award, the “Schwanengesang” will be released later this year.
Now they are taking the cycles on tour around Britain and continental Europe because, as Padmore put it, there are plenty of good recordings out there, but it is another thing entirely to perform them, and hear them, in the concert hall.
Here’s what else they had to say about how it’s possible to walk on stage night after night and sing about death and why, given the inevitable differences in opinion that arise in such intimate music, they are still on speaking terms.
Q: Paul, you’ve devoted much of your recent career to Beethoven, recording the 32 sonatas, the five concertos and you were the first person to play all the concertos during a BBC Proms season. Why now Schubert, the song cycles and the sonatas, which you are touring in Europe and the U.S.?
Lewis: “I played my first Schubert sonata when I must have been 19 or 20...and I felt the magnitude of the task but I didn’t feel in any way equal to it. But I think that’s the point, you have to accept that it’s a constant process...Also, this is generalizing, but the effect of Beethoven is often very immediate...whereas Schubert is different. So often with Schubert you have to draw the audience in. They have to trust Schubert and they have to trust you. Schubert piano sonatas, most of them are something like 40 minutes long. The only Beethoven sonata that length is the “Hammerklavier.” He takes an enormous amount of time to develop his ideas but I think it’s that sense of space and the sense of timelessness that is one of Schubert’s hallmarks.”
Q: Of course, when it comes to timelessness, Schubert didn’t have much, at least here on earth — and he knew it. How did that affect his music?
Padmore: “The three cycles do have individual characters. ‘Die Schone Mullerin’ has a clear narrative so you follow the journey of a young man who’s naive and enthusiastic and impressionable and completely vulnerable. It is the tale of a suicide and I liken it a bit to ‘Hamlet’...I find it very hard when you start off to imagine where you’re going. There is this real genius of Schubert for the comforting nature of a major key but which is at the same time terribly sad. ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’ (The Stream’s Lullaby) at the end often provokes tears in an audience because of Schubert’s understanding of the smile in the tears and the tears in the smile.”
Q: And singing this stuff night after night? Ever felt like you have to go drown yourself in a stream, like the young man?
Padmore: “I know actors who do a matinee and an evening performance of ‘Hamlet’ — that I find extraordinary. And yes, ‘Winterreise’ is a sort of long thing (75 minutes) and you do feel you’ve been through something at the end of it but at the same time it’s exhilarating, because it’s so great.”
Q: There are many famous pairings in this repertoire, notably German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore. Are any of them role models for you?
Lewis: “I wouldn’t think of any pairings as being role models. There are many things that you admire in lots of different performances but I always think, in terms of my solo stuff, I shy away from listening to other performances at the time that I’m going into it because I think it’s important to come to it from an angle with as little influence as possible. It’s far too easy, even if you don’t intend to be influenced by anything, these things filter through and I think it’s nice to come to it with as fresh a perspective as you can.”
Q: Where, if anywhere, does Padmore-Lewis go from here, and if you keep it up, can you remain on speaking terms — as some string quartets famously are not?
Padmore: (With an approving nod from Lewis) “Schumann is an obvious thing.”
Lewis: “It’s difficult to find a long-established quartet where all the members are on equally good terms with each other.”
Q: Are the two of you?
Lewis: Yes, of course, no problems.
(Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis performer “Winterreise” on Thursday, May 19 in Wattens, Austria. They perform “Winterreise” and “Die Schone Mullerin” elsewhere in Austria and Britain through the end of June)
Editing by Paul Casciato