Concert Review: Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss triumph in Schumann

Concert Review: Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss triumph in Schumann

Schumann Liederkreis, Op. 24

Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, Op. 90 (1850)

Dichterliebe, Op. 48 (full 20-song version of 1840)

Milton Court, London 29.11.2021

Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss make for a powerful pairing, and clearly bring out the best ion each other. There was none of the inconsistency of Biss’ Beethoven Sonata Cycle concerts at the Wigmore in 2019-20 reviewed here, here, here and here, on order of concert), but almost no moments of inconsistency here, in an evening to cherish.

Here, three cycles, three manifestations of different facets of genius. We began with the Op. 24 Liederkreis, a piece Padmore has recorded previously with Kristian Bezuidenhuit on piano. Biss’ imaginative response to Schumann’s writing (as Padmore said in an introductory statement, Schumann’s songs offer a real partnership of equals) coupled with Padmore’s superb diction, ever-clear but never interruptive of phrase, was laid bare in the initial ‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage’ (Every morning I awake and ask). But it was the highly rhythmic ‘Es tribt mich hin’ (I’m driven this way) that demonstrated the pair’s rhythmic attunement, while perhaps it was the rapt “Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen' (I wondered among the trees) that showed their combined spiritual depth. Padmore’s sound is, deliberately, not always beautiful, so that when it is (as here) the effect is profound. How superb was Biss’ staccato in ‘Lieb’ Liebchen’ (My Love); how beautiful his deep velvet bed of sound for ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden' (Lovely cradle of my sorrows) over which Padmore spun a vocal line of silk. The forceful ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’ was the perfect foil for the lullaby-like ‘Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter’ (Mountains and castles gaze down). Perhaps in pianistic terms it was Biss’ weighting and delivery of the chords of ‘Anfangs wallt’ ich fast verzagen’ (At first I despaired) that was most impressive; true beauty. As for Padmore, he is a story-teller; the narratiev element, and Padmore’s engagement with the audience, were never in doubt. The final song, ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen,’ was glorious from both musicians.

As an addendum, let's hear Padmore and Bezuidenhuit on thei rHarmoia Mundi commercial recording in the first song of Op. 24:

Schumann's Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, Op 90, is far less familiar. The last work Schumann wrote in Dresden prior to moving to Düsseldorf, the ‘requiem’ was for the poet Lenau, who Schubert thought had died. He hadn’t, but news of his death spookily came to Schubert at a gathering which included the premiere of Op. 90. Written in 1850, some six years before the composer’s own death, they have that sense of pure beauty that much late (and woefully neglected) Schumann exudes. That sense of beauty is particularly pronounced in the second song, ‘Dem holden Lenzgeschmeide’ (To Spring’s fair jewel); and how Padmore and Biss made the exclamation of ‘Du Rose meines Herzens!’ (Rose of my heart!) count. This is more interior music than the Op. 24 Liederkreis, and the performers adjusted accordingly. Biss’ grasp of Schumann’s harmonic workings was a vital component to the success of this performance, something heard in  microcosm in the brief piano gesture that opens ‘Kommen und Scheiden’ (Meeting and Parting). Most impressive, possibly, was Biss’ opening to ’Einsamkeit’ (Loneliness), directly linking it to late Brahms piano pieces. This is arguably the most harmonically sophisticated of the set and this grogeous performance took that sense of mystery straight to the heart, as did the poignant final ‘Requiem’. Quite a way to end the first half; how to follow that?

Jonathan Biss, photo credit: Benjamin Ealovega

With a radiant performance of Dichterliebe in its full 20-song 1840 version is the answer. Padmore and Biss’ ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ (In the wondrous month of May) was whimsical, dreamy, a hazy dream of Spring. It illustrated how they captured the essence of each and every song: the sheer fragility of ‘Aus meinen Tränen sprießen' (From my tears there will spring). Padmore's exquisite sweetness in his top register was heard in ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen seh' (at other times, one was reminded how strong his low register is).

Hearing ‘Dein Angesicht’ (Your face) and ‘Lehn’ deine Wang’’ (Lay your cheek on my cheek) as the next songs when expecting the more usual ‘Ich will meine Seele tauchen’ (Let me bathe my soul) was interesting, a reminder that there are alternatives to what we think are set in stone; and what beauties these songs are! Padmore and Biss excelled in the dark dotted rhythms of ‘Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome’ (In the Rhine, the holy river),’ before one of the most excerpted Lieder from Dichterliebe, ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (I bear no grudge) acted as an anchor. This last was gentler at its outset than most readings (including Padmore’s own recording with Bezuidenhuit); Padmore and Biss tightened the tension like a screw. Utterly remarkable, and testament to the level of insight here, something continued a couple of songs along in ‘Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen' (What a fluting, what a scraping), here the most macabre of dances. Padmore’s blanched solo opening to ‘Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet’ (I wept in my dream) and Biss’ darkly staccato responding chords would, had he written one, been included in Schumann’s Winterreise.

Those who own Padmore’s excellent recording of this would find this performance an extension of it (in various senses – the recording does not include the ‘extra’ songs): contrasts expanded, the more sinister moments (the ‘extra’ 'Es leuchtet meine Liebe’) heightened. Biss cast his own spell: the lilting piano of ‘Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen' (When I hear the little song), the spell-binging harmonic play of the piano part to ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’.

The final trio of songs were transfixing, the beauty of ‘Allnächtlich im Traume' (Nightly in dreams) set against the galloping 'Aus alte Märchen' (From fairy tales of old) before the remarkable gestures of ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder' (The bad old songs). took us to that darkest place, the grave, where the poet wants to bury his love and sorrow. Biss’ postlude was perfect, beautiful in its starkness.

An incredibly moving evening. Padmore and Biss are a musical marriage made in Heaven.

Photo credit for Mark Padmore: Marco Borggreve