BBC Music Magazine
The BBC Music Magazine interview
The tenor Mark Padmore and fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout talk Schubert with James Naughtie
‘‘Winterreise looks at the world in a very unflinching way. It is fantastic poetry’’
THE BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE INTERVIEW
The first time tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout performed Schubert’s Winterreise together, they were in Savannah, Georgia. The fortepiano they had planned to use was in such bad shape that they had to abandon it and switch to a modern Steinway – it changed the whole nature of their performance.
But it was probably not the lack of a fortepiano that caused the local newspaper to print a less-than-rosy review. Apparently the critic had simply found Schubert’s song cycle boring. Oh well.
Not the most auspicious start to the partnership that produced a Winterreise for Harmonia Mundi in January, recorded in New York after performances at Lincoln Center (alongside Die schöne Müllerin and Schwanengesang). When we meet, it seems fitting that we should start by talking about pianos, and why for both of them the fortepiano is the right instrument for Schubert’s journey into despair.
Bezuidenhout, a leading fortepiano specialist, puts it like this: ‘There’s a beauty of sound and a range of soft and loud that’s possible on the instrument which the composer would recognise. The orchestral effects that Schubert produced are impossible to replicate on a modern piano.’
And for Padmore, who also recorded Winterreise with pianist Paul Lewis in 2010, the magic lies in the ability of the fortepiano to produce a conversational tone, which he believes is the essence of a good performance, an intimacy between the voice and piano that is rediscovered every time in a slightly different way.
The fortepiano gives Padmore what he wants. ‘A lot of singers are interested in
voice and sound. I’ve never really gone for that side. I’m interested in text and ideas, and emotion which can be very tied to voice and colouring and everything, but I think I have a literature-based approach to it.’
‘So I find the fortepiano to be a wonderful collaborator. And for the pianist, in that it has a spoken quality to it. If we compare it to a modern piano, we’re talking about a Steinway, or if we were looking at cars we’d call it a Rolls-royce. It has a beautifully smooth motion and luxury, and its soundworld is fantastic. But it is also limited. When you talk about early pianos, French or English or others, each has a huge difference and variety.’
This is Bezuidenhout’s description. ‘Think of the six-and-a-half-foot deluxe concert grand of the 1820s. Very much a Viennese instrument – straight strung, with typical Viennese action – and the colour possibilities that these pianos offered were deeply linked to Schubert’s idea of orchestration, especially at the bottom end. Triple “p” is the sound that Schubert associates with the instruments of the 1820s, a sound that is hypnotically beautiful in this repertoire. That’s the kind of texture that he exploits and it’s something that is hard to replicate. When it works, the transparency of the sound allows for a much more rhetorical, speechdriven style of delivery.’
And as for why that is important in a performance of Winterreise, Padmore talks about the inventiveness that both singer and player have to bring to the songs. ‘It’s the way that imagination plays in what a performer does. Take “Frühlingstraum” – remembering a happy springtime. You get a sense that he’s conjuring up an idea, and it has to be immediate in performance. One of the ways you get that is to allow the performer to invent it. If you just sing the text – trying to get the clear notes that Schubert wrote – you are restricting yourself in imagination. I find that a little bit of ornamentation, especially in the second verse of that song, is totally natural and expressive of what is going on. I don’t feel strictly bound to be doing it as it’s written. It was expected that performers would bring life to the music.’
Inevitably, the combination that has produced this recording has seen Padmore respond to the particular style
of Bezuidenhout, a player steeped in early repertoire. ‘Kris comes from such a particular place – being so familiar with the continuo repertoire. He’s going forwards to Schubert and not backwards.’
Bezuidenhout enthuses about the liberty that the pianist is offered – a measure of improvisation. ‘The most important thing with all late 18th-century music is that there was this built-in sense that composers were writing for educated audiences at the time. Mozart and then Beethoven assumed basic musical literacy that is encompassed in a notation that is quite vague. It’s very difficult to look at those texts without the basic added assumption of musical literacy. And so I think 80 per cent of the time the notation is relying on the assumption that most of the basic hierarchy of the tessitura and the understanding of the notational style is built into the training of these people. And that means that the text has a completely different perspective.
‘I remember somebody saying to me, not “how do you play this?” but “how do you write down what you play?” What you think of is not how you play what’s
‘Viennese fortepianos were deeply linked to Schubert’s idea of orchestration’
written, but how you write down what you play. And it’s a great way of looking at it, because notation is a frustrating thing. With Schubert songs, it’s a similar reverse attitude looking at the text. It’s not all there!’
Padmore chips in to talk about the difference in the various printed versions in the cycle Die schöne Müllerin: ‘It shows how much flexibility there was.’
The cycles were not imagined with a large audience in mind, or a vast concert hall. Padmore likes to think of them as written for singer and pianist alone. ‘The song recital didn’t really exist,’ he says. ‘This was music designed for domestic consumption, designed for two people to enjoy, or perhaps with friends. The level of conversation is very intimate and I don’t think you can sing the words in any other way. Ideally, you would never perform it in halls above a certain size, and certainly some of my most memorable performances have been in small rooms. There are ways of trying to draw the audience towards you. The way we perform it becomes very “in the moment” – invented as we go along. You rely on the audience to be complicit. People can slip quickly into a memory mode – perhaps remembering a performance they know from a disc – and then they cease to be present.’
The 24 poems in Wilhelm Müller’s sequence trace a journey that’s notably bleak, a journey into loneliness that does have a resolution, albeit a reconciliation with some of the world’s harshness. As Padmore puts it, ‘it does look at the world in a very unflinching way.’
He points to the interior nature of the wanderer’s reflections. ‘Winterreise is fantastic poetry to my mind, with a consistency of tone. There aren’t any humans until he meets the hurdy-gurdy man in the last song. You meet a crow. There are rustling leaves. But little else. It’s not surprising that it was Samuel Beckett’s favourite work. He was a pianist and he loved Schubert, who came into his plays in many ways. Schubert’s world is something that you need to draw the audience into and for me I’d love to break out of the idea that it’s a piece of classical music and instead an encounter that one should have.’
So any performance needs to have a spontaneity on the winter journey, as if the singer is responding freshly to his feelings and memories. In their recording in a Harlem church in New York, in the inevitable business of trying to produce a final edit of the highest quality – recording each song between six or ten times, according to Bezuidenhout – it was important to recapture that spirit, which is perhaps easier to conjure up in a straightthrough performance lasting 70-or-so minutes. ‘We recorded the postludes and preludes separately, and it was surprising what we found when we went into the booth,’ he says. ‘We didn’t want tempos that were too slow, too clinical. It had to be believable. That’s not easy.’
They made ‘many’ adjustments, continues Bezuidenhout. ‘Really that’s very true. To be honest, recording something like this is so much more scientific than people think. We worked a lot on the stresses and natural inflections, to get the spun legato line. And all the detail, which takes a lot of work.’
As for Padmore’s tenor – so many people are used to baritone recordings, Dietrich Fischer-dieskau having been on everyone’s shelves for so long – he says he’s singing at the pitch Schubert wanted. ‘The baritone voice does sound easier to us. It’s the manly voice. But the tenor has the ambiguity of a higher kind, possibly even a sexual ambiguity. Schubert’s own life had some homosexual overtones and it’s there in this music. I love singing these songs in my own voice, which is highly placed, even though that doesn’t accord with people’s first experience of the cycles.’
So there they are, two artists with easily identified musical fingerprints. Padmore’s familiar tenor, and Bezuidenhout’s mastery of fortepiano. They are convinced that, together, they’ve captured something that Schubert would recognise as his own. Padmore and Bezuidenhout’s recording of Schubert’s Winterreise (Harmonia Mundi HMM902264 ) is reviewed next month